November 7 was not your usual municipal election in Uwchlan Township, a suburban community in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. First-time political candidates Mayme Baumann and Bill Miller were elected to the Uwchlan Township Board of Supervisors in a landslide, capturing over 60% of the vote in perhaps the highest-turnout municipal election Uwchlan has ever seen.
Why does this matter? Because Mayme and Bill have pledged to enforce Uwchlan’s local safety laws when they take office in a few days. Legal experts believe could block the dangerous Mariner East 2 pipeline from running through their community.
Just next door in West Goshen Township, Mary LaSota and Robin Stuntebeck also won their races for Township Supervisor positions, garnering 57% of the vote. In response to a Food & Water Action questionnaire, LaSota and Stuntebeck committed to investigating the feasibility of enforcing similar local laws in West Goshen.
Food & Water Action organizers and volunteers played a key role in securing these victories, but the real credit here is owed to the growing movement against the Mariner East 2. Communities along the pipeline route have been working for years to get themselves organized. Those community leaders standing up to protect their neighbors is what got Food & Water Action involved in this fight.
In August of 2016, I got a call from Eve Miari, a resident of Delaware County. Eve and I had worked together several years prior to educate people about fracking. Eve is a natural leader: she is passionate, well-organized, and an effective communicator. Eve’s call came as I was on the train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, a nearly eight-hour trip from one corner of Pennsylvania to the other. She told me about a pipeline that would run the opposite route of my train ride: the Mariner East 2, which would transport materials known as Highly Volatile Liquids from just outside of Pittsburgh to the Delaware River. I knew a bit about the pipeline; Elise Gerhart, a resident of Huntingdon County, had spoken powerfully about her family’s fight against Sunoco at the March for a Clean Energy Revolution earlier that summer.
I tried my best to be helpful, but the alarm Eve was ringing for me would have to wait a few months (and after we wrapped up a winning campaign in Philadelphia). It all came together on February 5, when I attended a strategy session Eve had organized at a church in Media, PA. I learned just how dangerous these Highly Volatile Liquids were, and I saw firsthand how much passion and energy existed in the fight against this pipeline. People were doing real work, and they were ready to do much more.
Most importantly, I learned that there was a strategic direction. I met Eric Friedman, a resident of Thornbury Township, who told me that because there had been no federal or state action to regulate the routing of the pipeline, municipalities could enforce existing pipeline zoning ordinances. I texted our regional organizer, Sam Rubin: “I’m in Middletown in Delaware County at a mtg about mariner east. Maybe this is a fight for us.”
Talking to Neighbors in West GoshenSam and I decided we’d start our outreach in West Goshen Township, which had an existing pipeline zoning ordinance that had gone unenforced. Sam began his outreach work by organizing door-to-door canvasses in the parts of West Goshen closest to the proposed pipeline route. That’s where we met Erin Morelli, whose family lives less than 900 feet from the route. Erin had been organizing with her neighbors, but had almost given up on stopping the Mariner East 2-- until she heard we were walking around town telling people the pipeline could be stopped. Erin stepped away from preparations for her son’s birthday party to hear about what we were trying to do.
Over the next several months, Erin and dozens of others would head over to their Township Board of Supervisors meetings to urge their local elected officials to try to protect the community by enforcing their local laws. The supervisors wouldn’t hear it.
Finding Leaders in Uwchlan
Pipeline construction started in the spring of 2017, as we were ramping up our outreach in West Goshen. Sunoco, now a part of Energy Transfer Partners, was just as reckless and irresponsible as many had feared. In just a few months, they had over 100 accidents in which they spilled drilling fluid. One of the worst occurred in the Marchwood neighborhood of Uwchlan Township, just a few miles north of West Goshen. Eric and Eve helped us bring together an emergency meeting with the community group Uwchlan Safety Coalition. We learned from community leaders Rebecca Britton, Danielle Otten, and Mayme Baumann that they also had a local safety law, near-identical to the one in West Goshen. But their local Supervisors were refusing to enforce it because they were afraid to stand up to Sunoco. So Mayme and her friend Bill decided to run for the two Supervisor positions up for election. If they won, they would control a majority of the Board (with two out of the three seats), and they could enforce the ordinance.
This was a huge opportunity. Getting Mayme and Bill elected as Township Supervisors could present a huge obstacle to the completion of the pipeline, which would have ramifications extending far beyond the Uwchlan township limits. And we’d have twice the impact if we could also elect two Supervisors candidates in West Goshen, Mary LaSota and Robin Stuntebeck. Food & Water Watch does civic engagement work that advocates on issues, and does not get involved in elections.But if we successfully raised funds for our political arm, Food & Water Action, we could to get involved in these local elections. So that’s exactly what we did.
After thousands of phone calls, text messages, and visits to voters’ doors, our candidates won their elections. I am so proud of what we accomplished. We had thousands of conversations with Uwchlan and West Goshen voters about the need to stop the pipeline, educating many of them for the first time, and activating dozens of them to get involved in the movement to stop it. We’ve elected local officials who will do what no one has been willing to do: stand up to Sunoco and their dangerous pipeline.
But most importantly, we’ve helped people realize their own power. Just see this video from Uwchlan’s Danielle Otten about the power of canvassing, which brought me to tears when I watched it the Sunday prior to the election. Danielle’s home is only a few feet from the pipeline route.
Get Out the VOTE!
Good Morning Uwchlan Township, PA & Friends!!! Last weekend for #GOTV. Join us: fwaction.us/me2canvass
Posted by Uwchlan Safety Coalition on Sunday, November 5, 2017
It’s exciting that these communities now have leaders who will work to protect them from the pipeline. But it’s downright amazing that what we’ve helped build doesn’t go away after the election. This grassroots infrastructure will still be there weeks, months, and years following the election. That’s important, because it is going to take a lot more work to stop this pipeline for good.
Case in point: the morning after our victory party, I received a message from Jill Bielawski. Jill and two other volunteers, Margaret Quinn and George Alexander, had spent the victory party making plans to do outreach to a community impacted by Sunoco’s recently announced routing change to the pipeline. They wanted to know: Can we use the voter outreach tools we used during the election to reach people even after the election?
I am so excited to continue working with this movement in Chester and Delaware Counties, and elsewhere along the pipeline route, to build the power we’ll need to make sure elected officials at the local and state level do everything they can to stop this pipeline once and for all.
I’m excited because this movement, which recruited our team to help them, has grown so much in the year I’ve just described. And I know that our biggest victories are still ahead of us, because these leaders are determined to make sure this pipeline is defeated.
A Model to Expand Upon
The movement to fight climate change is at its best when we can frame this big, ethereal and daunting issue less about abstractions and more about how climate change is impacting people’s lives right now. We can only build the movement that will defeat the fossil fuel industry by getting large numbers of people to feel deeply and directly impacted by this issue.
Unfortunately, the fracking industry continues to expand its footprint of polluting infrastructure in Pennsylvania. New fracking pipelines, compressor stations, petrochemical facilities, and gas-fired power plants are being proposed seemingly every day. This new infrastructure brings with it public safety hazards, air and water pollution, and the corporate takeover of our state and local governments.
However, these developments also bring opportunities to talk to people about climate change and the fossil fuel industry in a way that feels tangible and compelling to voters. We can win local, state, and even federal elections by talking about issues like the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
This isn’t just happening in Uwchlan and West Goshen Townships. In Northampton County, Tara Zrinski, who worked in her community for years as a Food & Water Watch Local Coordinator, won her race for County Council by running a campaign focused on the PennEast pipeline. In Jessup Borough, the grassroots movement that has for years fought Invenergy’s 1,500 megawatt fracked gas-fired power plant took over majority control of their borough council. And in Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America helped elect Anita Prizio to Allegheny County Council by talking to voters about economic and environmental justice issues like banning fracking in county parks.
Looking forward to 2018, I am eager to support more local leaders in taking the immense amount of grassroots energy in our movement and use it to elect more champions who will stand up to the fracking industry.