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In wake of toxic dumping, Tamaqua Borough passes Rights of Nature ordinance, USA


Halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is Tamaqua- a town and borough of about 7000 people in eastern Schuylkill Region, Pennsylvania. The town became the first U.S. municipality to recognise legal rights for nature in September, 2006. Around 100 communities have since passed ordinances seeking for scrapping the legal rights bestowed to corporations and instead granting them to ecosystems and communities around those ecosystems.

Throughout the 20th century, in Tamaqua area, mining was the most essential economic activity but has declined significantly in the last few decades. What remains now are gigantic pits, some twice the size of the town itself. The issue cropped up when the owners of these pits made them available to companies outside the state for dumping sludge. The toxic sludge-- combining human waste with hospital waste and chemical waste from industries-- came from as far as New York or New Jersey. Farmers were encouraged to use it as bio-fertilizers in their fields. The dumping was threefold, including sludge, river dredging, and flying ash and there were no protections being offered against leaching. Runoff went into the rivers that run by Tamaqua homes and join the Schuylkill River that feeds the larger Schuylkill that supplies Philadelphia. A lot of people were drinking contaminated water. However, the dumping did actually stop in 2007, but only because of a permit violation as the coal company owed taxes, which the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) eventually paid.

The negative impact of the toxic sludge became very evident when, in 1994, an 11 year old boy named Tony Behun died from a staph infection after being exposed to the sludge in the area. Later, in 1996, a 17 year old boy (Daniel Pennock) also died from a staph infection following exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency has noted that sewage sludge can cause staph infections.

Two groups played a key role in mobilizing against the sludge dumping: The Army for a Clean Environment, with about 1000 members who fought against the toxic sludge dumping, and the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund (CELDF), which was started in 1995 in Schuylkill Township, outside of Philadelphia by Thomas Linzey to help communities stop development projects that posed public health or environmental risks.

Before Tamaqua Borough Sewage Sludge Ordinance came into place, the CELDF had passed dozens of local ordinances striking down corporate personhood. The ordinance was closely tied to the idea that the environment has inalienable rights and that any human residing close to the ecosystem has the right to act as a legal guardian of that threatened ecosystem. Damages recovered through this process may be used to restore the ecosystems and the communities that are affected in the process. The ordinance was a follow up to the long process of making the local communities aware of their democratic rights.

The purpose of the ordinance was illustrated as, “ an ordinance to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens and environment of Tamaqua borough by banning corporations from engaging in the land application of sewage sludge; by  banning persons from using corporations to engage in land application of sewage sludge; by providing for the testing of sewage sludge prior to land application in the borough; by removing constitutional powers from corporations within the borough; by recognizing and enforcing the rights of residents to defend natural communities and ecosystems; and by otherwise adopting the Pennsylvania regulations concerning the land application of sewage sludge.” (Ordinance No. 612, 2006)”.

Regarding rights of nature, the ordinance explicitly states that: "Borough residents, natural communities, and ecosystems shall be considered "persons" for the purposes of  the enforcement of the civil rights of those residents, natural communities, and ecosystems." (Ordinance No. 612, 2006)

The ordinance council has declared that corporations will be treated as ‘state actors’ and any attempts by state agencies or corporations to challenge the ordinance would result in a Borough wide consultation process that would determine steps of self-control of the borough.

The legality of the method was challenged in the courts by attorney generals arguing that the passed ordinances are illegal and unconstitutional.  There is another challenge that state law trumps the local law in the U.S’s federal system and the ordinance challenges the state law. Also, there was a possibility that the next council elected may decide to try to nullify the ordinances or disregard them. Still, the ordinance signals a paradigm shift, a move away from unsustainable practices that harm communities, and a move towards local self-government.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:In wake of toxic dumping, Tamaqua Borough passes Rights of Nature ordinance, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Pennsylvania
Location of conflict:Tamaqua, eastern Schuylkill County
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Coal extraction and processing
E-waste and other waste import zones
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Biological resources
Domestic municipal waste
Manufactured Products
Industrial waste
Toxic waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Regarding the river dredging, Army for a Clean Environment (ACE) and CEDLF mobilized, in part, against Lehigh Coal & Navigation Corporation's (LC&N) agreement (supported by state and federal agencies) to dump dredged material from the Hudson and Delaware Rivers for "mine reclamation" of a large LC&N anthracite coal pit mine- 3,600 ft long and 1,800 ft wide. The goal of the dredging was to deepen shipping channels for international corporations. LC&N representatives and Tamaqua Borough Council had agreed upon accepting 700,000 tons of river dredge, in exchange for $1.00 per ton to be paid to the Borough.

Please note that the conflict start date has been listed as the year in which Tony Behun died of a staph infection following exposure to the toxic sludge, but may not accurately reflect the exact moment that the overarching conflict began.

Project area:2,476.029
Level of Investment for the conflictive project700,000 +
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:7,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1994
Company names or state enterprises: Lehigh Coal & Navigation Corporation (LC&N) from United States of America - Responsible for dumping contract
Relevant government actors:Department of Environmental Protection
Tamaqua Borough
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund (CELDF)
The Army For A Clean Environment (ACE)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Other environmental related diseases, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Other socio-economic impacts


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Negotiated alternative solution
New legislation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Fostering a culture of peace
Withdrawal of company/investment
Project temporarily suspended
It inspired over three dozen communities in seven U.S. states –Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, New York, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Maine –to pass local laws which codify nature’s rights. It triggered the RoN movement.
Proposal and development of alternatives:Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania became the first U.S. municipality to adopt a local ordinance (bylaw) recognizing the rights of nature to exist, thrive and evolve in the year 2006.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The example of Tamaqua was the first municipality across the world to recognise Rights of Nature against the giant toxix dumping companies. It inspired over three dozen communities in seven U.S. states –Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, New York, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Maine –to pass local laws which codify nature’s rights. It triggered the RoN movement.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

205 Tamaqua ordinance

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania Ordinance No. of 2006

Ordinance Banning Corporations from Engaging in Land Application of Sewage Sludge Dumping

Environmental Research Foundation: Municipality Bans Corporate Waste Dumping

Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania

Rights of Nature: A radical approach to conservation

Meta information

Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:4119



Toxic dump in Tamaqua