The small New York town of Sanford has enraged environmental groups by prohibiting all discussion of natural gas drilling at town board meetings and is now facing a lawsuit for violating free speech rights.
Those opposed to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have been unable to discuss their environmental concerns since the ban was implemented in September. To justify barring the environmental talk, the town board alleges that there had already been hours of discussion against gas drilling and that no more was needed.
Herbert Kline, an attorney representing Sanford’s decision, told the Associated Press that the board was becoming overwhelmed with residents’ concerns about natural gas drilling, which has been a major political issue in New York state in wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s impending decision about lifting a four and a half year suspension of the practice.
“People who were against fracking had, in the minds of the town board, monopolized discussion in the public participation portion of prior meetings to the extent that very little other business could be accomplished,” Kline said.
But the fracking discussions have been a hot topic because of the likelihood for drilling to occur throughout New York state – including Sanford. The lucrative practice would forever change the small town by introducing heavy industrial activity that generates toxic waste, while providing a flood of income for landowners and gas companies. The process requires the clearing of land to build access roads to fracking sites. There would be heavy drilling and transportation of heavy equipment and waste – all of which would pollute the air and water and risk downgrading property values.
Fear of fracking, which many consider unsafe, has prompted residents to argue with the town board, which has aggressively favored natural gas drilling in Sanford – especially at the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which is rich in natural gas. Sanford Supervisor Dewey Decker in September signed a letter asking Cuomo to allow fracking “on behalf of [his] constituents”. That same month, the town board banned any further discussion of the topic, thereby silencing the constituents from arguing against Decker’s request.
“If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interest?” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney Kate Sinding told AP.
Together with the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, the NRDC filed a lawsuit against the city of Sanford for violating the First Amendment right to free speech. Although the town board has the right to adopt “reasonable rules” about discussion topics, Sinding believes this “does not mean completely banning speech on a particular topic, especially one of the most important and timely topics in the state.”
It is not required for the town board to allow residents to speak at meetings, but the people of Sanford say they want their voices heard – especially about an issue as drastic as fracking.
“They shut down public speaking,” Sanford resident Susan Bishop told AP. “I feel it is an absolute violation of our rights. It can’t be allowed to stand.”
The town continues to remain divided about the issue, with both supporters and opponents wishing they could speak up about the practice. But for months, no one has been able to publicly comment about fracking – a ban that the environmental groups hope to lift with their lawsuit.
“We are literally days away from a potential decision by Governor Cuomo as to whether to proceed with new fracking in New York,” Sinding wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post. “Take action now to ask the governor not to make any final decision without first opening the review of fracking health impacts to the public and New York State-based health professionals.”
Such a review could not occur in the town of Sanford unless the board opens up the discussion of hydraulic fracturing. Unless the lawsuit forces the town board to lift the ban, the fate of Sanford’s industries lies in the hands of the legislators who claim to represent the constituents while silencing their input.