PA Supreme Court Finds Parts of Act 13 Unconstitutional, Allows Municipalities to Limit Fracking
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday in the closely-watched case of Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, No. 63 MAP 2012.
The case was a challenge filed by several Pennsylvania municipalities against the state legislature’s adoption of Act 13. Act 13 sought to eliminate zoning authority from municipalities over oil and gas extraction.
Act 13 was passed in 2012 to remove any local barriers to the expansion of drilling and fracking across the state. Provisions of Act 13 made certain oil and gas extraction activities a “use by right” in any part of any municipality, thus eliminating the ability of municipalities to use zoning and planning to control oil and gas drilling (and other activities) within their communities.
In 2012, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court (Pennsylvania’s trial court for actions brought against the State of Pennsylvania), ruled in favor of the municipal plaintiffs. That court struck down certain portions of Act 13, ruling that they were a constitutional violation of the property rights of landowners who would be affected by the act’s elimination of municipal zoning authority.
The decision was then appealed by several parties to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In yesterday's decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, in a departure from the lower court, the state Supreme Court rooted its decision not in the property rights of landowners, but on Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment.
The amendment, adopted in 1971 by the voters of the state as part of the State Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, declares the right of citizens to “clean air and pure water” and to the “preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” The amendment also declares that the state and its municipalities must act as trustees to protect the rights of Pennsylvania citizens under the amendment.
The court ruled that Act 13’s elimination of zoning and land use planning authority—the primary method through which municipalities act as trustees—was unconstitutional. For, the court found, the state cannot interfere with the constitutional duty of municipal governments to carry out the duties imposed by the Environmental Rights Amendment.
In essence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court delivered a ruling which limits the power of the state to interfere with the duty of municipalities to act as a trustee of natural resources.
The court thus overturned several sections of Act 13, including the sections creating the power of the state to nullify municipal zoning provisions which ran afoul of the act’s requirement that oil and gas drilling could occur in any area of a municipality, regardless of how that area was zoned.
The court’s decision was a drastic departure from that of prior courts with respect to the Environmental Rights Amendment. Ever since the amendment’s overwhelming adoption by the people of the commonwealth, courts have generally disregarded it, holding that its sole purpose was to provide additional authority to state agencies to protect the natural environment.
“Today was a significant victory for municipalities seeking to regulate the placement of oil and gas wells and other structures on the surface of land,” said Thomas Linzey, the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).
“Further, today’s decision may not only affect Act 13 or oil and gas drilling," said Linzey. "For years, the state legislature has sought to eliminate local authority on extraction and other activities, including forestry and coal, which the court referenced in its decision.”
For many years, CELDF has represented municipal clients adopting local ordinances that ban corporate projects harmful to communities. As part of that work, CLEDF has fought to overturn another Pennsylvania law—known as ACRE (Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment)—which forced corporate factory farms into communities regardless of local zoning and land use planning laws which sought to limit industrial agriculture.
Linzey stated, “The court’s decision calls into question the constitutionality of any state laws which nullify the authority of municipal zoning ordinances and land use plans. Today’s ruling gives new life to people’s environmental rights, and serves more importantly, in some ways, to shield our communities from a state legislature that has been privatized by certain industries.”
“This ruling, while welcome, does not stop fracking of Pennsylvania’s communities, nor does it recognize the right of the people of Pennsylvania to govern their own communities without state or corporate interference,” Linzey explained further. “Today’s decision does, however, for the first time open the door for future rulings that would add that law."
"However, there remain tremendous legal barriers in place which subordinate the authority of people, communities and nature to protect themselves from fracking and the wide range of activities that the state legislature has forced into our municipalities,” explained Linzey.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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