by Alisa Baratta, Kathy Lilley, and Jennifer Petrozzo
The small, rural community of Williams Township has a 35-year history of residents fighting the corporate interests of a local landfill. Community members have been responsible for documenting and calling attention to landfill violations from as far back as the late 1970’s (resulting in a portion of the landfill being declared a Federal Superfund site), to our efforts over the past two years — resulting in multiple citations and state fines against the landfill totaling over $187,000 for violating PA DEP regulations.
Along the way, we have encountered numerous obstacles and challenges:?non-responsive state and local elected officials, an apathetic DEP bureaucracy and a well-established old-boys network. We have faced the significant challenge of raising adequate financial resources to fight the legal and public relations machine of a lucrative and politically connected landfill operation.
In order to keep our community process sustainable, we have developed specific, achievable objectives, organized participatory volunteer efforts to implement strategies to achieve these objectives, and taken time to celebrate small victories and even collectively agonize over defeats. We’ve used a five-prong approach to achieve our goals:? (1) community education about the issues and facts related to landfill compliance, zoning and land use issues, and financial implications to our township’s budget; (2) community organization to ensure strong turn out and participation in township-wide meetings; (3) advocacy with local and state officials; (4) legal challenges to local government sunshine law violations and to zoning and land use decisions that favor a corporation—that does not pay a mandated landfill business privilege tax—over local tax-paying residents; and (5) an electoral challenge to a status-quo board of supervisors.
We’ve encouraged community participation in the local decision-making process by organizing town hall style meetings, designing educational materials for wide distribution; organizing community petitioning drives, organizing visits to elected officials to advocate for greater oversight of and accountability from the landfill; and organizing a successful grassroots writing campaign to elect a new township supervisor who campaigned on a platform of transparency and accountability – the result was a write-in candidate that won with 51% of the vote in a three-way race, with unprecedented turn-out in an off year election.
Local residents are encouraged to participate in our activities to the degree with which they are comfortable. Over 1,800 people signed petitions opposing a zoning change that ultimately will allow a landfill expansion. Over 700 residents completed write–in ballots to elect our candidate to the Township Board of Supervisors. Hundreds of people have written letters to the newspapers and elected officials at all levels of government and attended public meetings, and over 200 people have provided financial support for our efforts. Finally, we have a committed volunteer base of between 35 and 50 people who engaged in the active work of research and documentation, development of legal strategy, community organizing and education, public relations, and fundraising.
Today, we envision a participatory community decision-making process in Williams Township that involves public access to information, significant turnout at public meetings, open dialogue about community issues (including the impact of potential decisions on finances, quality of life and the environment). In the meantime, we will continue to use PA Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know Laws, any available legal challenges, and the electoral process to make sure that our local elected officials remain accountable to community residents.
Members of Committee to Save Williams Township.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
(Published in the 2010 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)