For all the enthusiasm that “going local” has garnered in recent years, securing local control as a legal entitlement is generally a very different matter. Federal and state law tend to place strict limits on what local communities can do to protect themselves from outside commercial forces.
A hearty salute, then, to the path-breaking work by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that provides legal advice and advocacy for municipal governments and, more recently, international allies. Journalist Barry Yeoman has a terrific profile of CELDF, Rebel Towns,” in the latest issue of The Nation (February 4).
The truth of the matter is that local communities don’t really have much legal authority to prohibit polluters and extractive industries (mining, water-bottling, timber companies) from coming into their towns and ruining the place. In the U.S., at least, and in most other places around the world, national governments have the sovereign power to override local authorities, and they are only too willing to do so. After all, politicians’ partnerships with major industries help grow the economy, boost tax revenues and reap political contributions to repeat the whole cycle.
Of course, the “market externalities” that result -- poisoned soil, polluted rivers, etc. – aren’t taken into account. The traditional response of public-interest attorneys is to “work within the system” to deal with these problems, using available laws and judicial processes.