BREAKING NEWS: Helen Holden Slottje Wins Goldman Environmental Prize 2014
Helen Slottje, co-founder of the legal dynamic duo Team Slottje has just been named recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for 2014.
Way to go Helen. Bravo Team Slottje.
Using a clause in the state constitution that gives municipalities the right to make local land use decisions, Helen Slottje provided pro-bono legal assistance, helping towns across New York defend themselves from oil and gas companies by passing local bans on fracking.
Much of upstate New York is a rural landscape dotted by small towns, dairy farms, vineyards and bed-and-breakfasts. It is also home to the headwaters of the Finger Lakes that provide drinking water for much of the northeastern region.
Directly below the Finger Lakes region lies the Marcellus Shale, the largest known deposit of underground shale gas in the United States. In 2008, New York began an environmental review of fracking—a controversial practice that involves drilling through shale rock using a pressurized mix of water and chemicals to release natural gas. That review is ongoing and thus far has spared the state from the environmental damage wrought in nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Helen Slottje was working as a commercial attorney at a large Boston law firm when she met her husband David, a colleague at the firm. Slottje left her corporate practice and moved to Ithaca, where David had moved to join a family business. They fell in love with the rustic, small-town charm of the Finger Lakes region and decided to stay for good.
One spring day in 2009, Slottje saw an ad in the local paper announcing a meeting about gas drilling organized by a community group in Tompkins. She remembered seeing gas leases on every single property when she was helping her brother-in-law find a home in Ithaca. Her curiosity piqued, she went to the meeting—and left horrified at the pictures she had seen.
Once pristine landscapes were scarred by construction, drilling equipment and waste pits. Families were left to deal with dirty water and air, suffering health problems as a result. Horror turned to resolve, and Slottje decided to stay in Ithaca to see this fight through.
Slottje’s first project as a volunteer was to build a legal case against a large industrial complex being built by a fracking company at a vacant former military storage facility in the nearby town of Horseheads. While the case ultimately went the industry’s way, Slottje gained insight into the importance of local zoning and land use laws to limit the adverse impacts of one property’s use on others. Further research led Slottje to conclude that in much the same way as local laws determine how much light and noise is permissible from activities in town, individual townships could use zoning laws to outright ban fracking within their borders.
Slottje first discussed this idea with a gas drilling task force in the town of Ulysses and, with her husband David, helped the group develop a local law to ban fracking. When community members learned of the task force’s work, they supported the committee by drafting a petition to ban fracking, and residents interested in signing it began flooding town hall with phone calls. Word spread to neighboring towns, and soon enough, citizens in towns around the state began to develop similar petitions of their own. Over the next several months, Slottje drove hundreds of miles from one town to the next, providing hundreds of hours of pro bono legal help at community meetings.
While most local citizens and town boards embraced this strategy, the gas industry openly ridiculed and threatened Slottje. Pro-industry individuals verbally assaulted her, followed her to her car late at night after community meetings, and attempted to intimidate her.
When Dryden’s town board unanimously passed a law banning fracking in 2011, the gas industry sued the town. The industry lost the battle in trial court, and following an unsuccessful appeal, the case is now before the state’s highest court.
More than 170 towns and cities throughout New York have passed local laws prohibiting fracking based on Slottje’s innovative legal framework. Many more, inspired by successes of small towns winning over powerful corporations, are working on bans—and informing grassroots organizations in states like California, Texas and Colorado where communities are also grappling with ways to regulate fracking.”
Slottje said she’ll use the prestige and money that comes with the award to raise global awareness of her campaign.
“Fracking is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society, an oligarchy, a complete separation of people making decision and those whose lives they affect,” she said.
Slottje, 46, also plans to take the California bar exam, since anti-fracking activists have gained ground in that state, in preparation for taking on a greater role there. A ban this week in Beverly Hills clearly borrowed directly from Slottje’s work, even though she was not contacted for that case.
And she says she’ll put more of her legal work online so that communities can use her local control argument in their own legal battles.
Slottje waded into the fracking battle almost by accident. She and her husband David, with whom she does much of her work, were corporate lawyers when they moved from Boston to Ithaca. She attended a community meeting where activists described the risks of fracking and was so shocked by the images and by the proliferation of leases across New York that she turned it into a call to arms. She was soon traveling the state, to town halls and demonstrations, to volunteer her legal services.
Her opponents say she has turned community members against each other, and that she has encouraged outsiders to exercise influence on small towns across New York that need jobs and tax revenue. Slottje said she’s done the opposite, by giving communities more of a say than multi-billion dollar energy companies.
”We’re going to do whatever we think is going to help the voice of the people,” she said.
Last year’s Goldman winners include an environmentalist from Iraq who restored marshes destroyed by Saddam Hussein, a Colombian who organized that country’s waste pickers to make part recycling part of the country’s waste management and a man who organized a successful ban on fracking in South Africa’s desert region. The award is only handed out to a few people each year and is the largest prize for grassroots environmental organizing in the world.
“By bringing decision-making power back to the municipal level, Slottje enabled small towns to effectively respond to advances by powerful, moneyed energy companies,” prize adminstrators said in a statement.
The Goldman prize was established in 1989 and “recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk,” according to its website. It is given to those who create change in their communities.
In June, the legality of all of the local fracking bans in New York will essentially be tested when two of the earliest ones are defended in the state’s highest court.
The two cases—one in Dryden, outside of Ithaca, and the other in Otsego County’s Middlefield—are now before the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Oral arguments have been scheduled for June and a decision could come later this year. The outcome of those cases will likely have significant implications for moratoriums enacted throughout New York because they deal with the right of towns to override state law. Oral arguments are scheduled for June and a decision is expected in the fall.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not indicated when or whether the state will lift the nearly six-year moratorium on high-volume hydraulic hydrofracking, or whether the state will even provide any indications on the matter before Election Day.
Information on Team Slottje’s work to support Home Rule is found on their website:
Editorial comment – Home Rule, local zoning control of the land uses by municipalities is the law of the land in every state, except where the fracking lobbyists have bought the state government to specifically preclude local land use ordinances from being applied to oil and gas drilling – namely in Ohio, Fracksylvania and Colorado.
While states can clearly regulate fracking operations, it cannot pre-empt local zoning to permit permit if fracking is prohibited by local zoning laws. Eight New York justices have ruled that no such specific preemption exists in New York – a municipality can prohibit oil and gas exploration under its zoning laws.