Life-Saving Democracy at the Community Level

Updated: Aug 12, 2019


by: Barbara Peterson - August 2019


Nottingham Water Alliance (NWA) is, once again, rolling up their sleeves and doing the work of local democracy. While it’s important to speak out in favor of legislation and policies one supports and to voice dissent against those policies one opposes, taking direct action to ensure that the people have decisional power over the health and safety of their community is a vital aspect of promoting deliberative and emancipatory democracy in our society. And that is precisely what Nottingham Water Alliance (NWA) is doing.


In 2008, NWA drafted and passed The Nottingham Water Rights and Self-Governance Ordinance, a rights-based ordinance created to protect their town’s water. USA Springs was slated to come into Nottingham and begin embarking on the work of commercial water extraction. Their objective was to withdraw 439,000 gallons daily, bottle it, and sell it overseas.The dangers of this include lowering the levels of groundwater so wells must be dug deeper (which is costlier), and contaminating groundwater with harmful chemicals that jeopardize the health and wellbeing of citizens through the process of extraction.


In 2001, the Department of Environmental Services (DES) ordered USA Springs to conduct tests that would show their impact on wells and possible poisonous chemical pollutants leaking into people’s water. For more than a year, to delay USA Spring’s work, Nottingham protesters engaged in disruptive actions to prevent them from carrying out the tests. The protesters managed to hold off the testing until 2003, and when the test results did eventually come in, they showed that not only did well water levels drop significantly, but that the pumping processes caused hazardous contaminants to flow into the aquifer (underground feature that supplies drinking water), the aquifer’s recharge rate to slow, and an increase risk of harmful impacts on local wetlands.


NWA and the town of Nottingham continued to fight USA Springs, but in the end, the DES and state governments put the interests of industry over people, and USA Springs was granted permission to pump water. While it may seem egregious to our sense of democracy, states have the right to entirely ignore the expressed needs and interests of even an overwhelming majority of the people when granting industries permission to operate in any town of their choosing as long as they meet state regulations. This may be fine if regulations were shown to protect the people, but they don’t. Regulations are decided upon by state appointed committees and groups, and many members of these groups, appointed by the governor and approved by the Executive Council, are owners and managers of corporations whose interests are served by letting industries in. In short, the system is rigged in favor of corporations and against people.


As fortune would have it, however, USA Springs lost their financial backing, due in large part to the economic recession as well as an international money-lending scam in which they were involved. To ensure that another company could not just march in and do as they wished, Nottingham residents developed a rights-based ordinance whose goal was twofold: to protect the health and safety of the residents of their town, and to show that they have the rights as democratic citizens to enact local ordinances to protect their community. This Ordinance has served to discourage other industries – those that would cause harm – from coming into Nottingham because they would have to fight in court to overturn it. While Nottingham welcomes businesses and corporations that serve the economic and environmental wellbeing of their town, they want the power to say no to any business that indicates they will cause undue significant harm.


More recently, working with New Hampshire Community Rights Network (NHCRN), the Nottingham Water Alliance developed a new rights-based ordinance, which passed in March 2019. This Freedom from Chemical Trespass ordinance was written and passed to protect Nottingham from the harmful impacts of noxious chemicals being dumped in their town. The Ordinance prohibits any corporate or government agency from disposing toxic waste in Nottingham.


To pass a town ordinance in New Hampshire, a simple majority must vote in favor of it at a Town Hall meeting. The process is precise, but straightforward. Put simply, to get an ordinance passed, there must first be a petition signed by either 25 registered voters in a town or 2% of the population of registered voters, whichever is less. The petition is sent to the Select Board who puts it on the Warrant (an agenda with items to be voted on at the next Town Meeting). If a majority votes in favor of the ordinance, it passes and takes effect immediately or within 5 days. How to create a petition, get support for the ordinance, work with Select Board members, and ensure that the vote at Town Meeting runs smoothly, see NHCRN’s website shown below.


Right-based Ordinances consist of three equally vital community rights: (1) governmental decision-making controlled by a majority of local residents for policies and acts that directly impact the wellbeing of a community; (2) locally controlled decisional power to protect political and civil rights of all community members; and (3) the right to overturn and institute a new local government if the current one acts to restrict or threaten the safety, wellbeing, and political and civil rights of all citizens. It is important to note that local ordinances can only expand on individuals’ and communities’ rights; they can never restrict or abolish those afforded to them by the state and federal governments. Their purpose is to provide local residents more power than corporations or even the state in deciding what constitutes harm to community members and what would most benefit them.


Our government was founded on local, community rights. King George II and III of England had little real effect on the governance of colonists in the Americas when local residents drew up their own governing contracts by which they lived. These contracts and community governing processes served as the foundation for our notions of freedom and democracy. While the idea of freedom in modern days has come to mean the exercise of civil rights, it had meant the ability to participate in local debates and decisions about how society should be set up, what policies should be enacted to ensure every individual’s safety and wellbeing, and how the decision-making processes should operate. Freedom was not something given to individuals by the grace of governments; it was something afforded to persons by nature, and thus it was up to persons to determine the laws and rules by which they all lived. Local rights-based ordinances, then, are rules created by free citizens in a society that protects democratic decisional processes. In addition, they are protected by New Hampshire’s state Constitution, which was a document based on the model of local residents coming together and establishing policies that serve their best interests.


While rights-based ordinances have in the past and continue in the present to effectively discourage corporations (who cannot show they will maintain the health and wellbeing of local residents and the environment) from setting up shop in towns, they are not fool-proof. Briefly, New Hampshire is a Dillon’s Rule state, which means that the state has the authority to not recognize any law or policy created by a local municipality. Effectually, this means that if a corporation wants to move in to Nottingham or any other city or town in our state, and a majority of local residents express a definite wish to not allow it, the state can completely override local wishes and locally created ordinances. To do so, however, the corporation must take the municipality to court, and this is often enough to keep them from coming. However, it doesn’t always work.


NWA’s Freedom from Chemical Trespass ordinance is currently being challenged by Brent Tweed of G&F Goods, LLC. To defend Nottingham, the NWA has retained the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit, national organization that defends local residents who are trying to protect the environmental wellbeing of their communities. CELDF is different than municipal or state attorneys whose job is to protect the state against lawsuits, and their interests are to do what they can to keep the state from being sued. Their duty is to protect the welfare of states, not citizens. More often than not, therefore, municipal lawyers will discourage residents from challenging a corporation, even if that corporation clearly presents a significant risk to the economic and ecological health of the community. CELDF, on the other hand, is experienced and poised to take on these very types of cases.


Peter White is working with Chair, John Terninko and long-time Nottingham activists Gail and Chris Mills who serve on the Steering Committee. They are leading the NWA’s campaign to oppose G&F Goods’ law suit. To do so, they are building community support for the Ordinance by talking to neighbors and community members. They are also helping to educate the public on the campaign by holding informational meetings, writing letters to the editor, posting fliers, and engaging in good-old-fashion door-to-door conversations.


With approximately 850 toxic waste sites in New Hampshire, and deaths caused by the Coakley landfill discovered and publicized by the NH Safe Water Alliance, founded by former state Representative Mindi Messmer and Representative Renny Cushing in 2016, NWA wants to protect Nottingham residents from suffering the tragic consequences of industrial dump sites. Because NH has the highest rates in the nation of pediatric, breast, bladder, and esophageal cancer, it is only right that NWA is working hard to keep harmful industries from poisoning the water, air, and soil in their town.


Democracy is work, and it must come from the active efforts of local people creating policy that looks out for the expressed interests of their communities. No local ordinances should ever restrict any individual’s or group’s rights and freedoms but only expand them, and rights-based ordinances do precisely this. Seeing the struggles of Nottingham and other towns to secure their people’s and environment’s rights to life and safety, we see that the state regulatory process is not doing enough to protect the people. Rather, they do more to serve the needs of industry and corporations. While corporations are valued parts of every community, and rights-based ordinances are not anti-corporation, it is vital to the safety of all and the sustained wellbeing of our ecosystems, that those industries and corporate entities that would cause us harm are not given the right to inflict their damage on the lives of our children, our neighbors, ourselves, and our environment. People’s needs must come before the interests of corporations, and NWA is doing what they need to do to see that the sovereignty of humans and the environment are protected.


Supporting NWA

  • NWA meetings: Last Thursday of every month in the Blaisdell Memorial Library in Nottingham from 6:00-8:00pm. All are welcome.

  • The two themes that guide the meetings are: (1) How to keep water clean and protect the health and safety of their residents and environment, and (2) The right for local citizens to pass ordinances that secure their inalienable rights to life and safety.

  • All donations to their Go Fund Me page are very much appreciated


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