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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Standing tall: Act 13 decision affirms ability of environmental groups to challenge regulations.

It isn’t the sexiest holding to come from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but environmental advocates should nonetheless take note of the Supreme Court’s analysis of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s standing in the case.

An important aspect of affirmative environmental litigation is establishing standing necessary to participate in the case. To establish standing, a plaintiff must be able to demonstrate, among other things, that it has “a substantial, direct and immediate interest in the outcome of the litigation.”Fumo v. City of Philadelphia, 972 A.2d 487, 496 (Pa. 2009).

The Commonwealth Court held in Robinson Township that the injuries alleged by Delaware Riverkeeper and its Executive Director, Maya van Rossum, were not sufficiently direct or immediate to confer standing.

On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s standing analysis and delivered a victory to environmental advocates. With respect to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Court held that the group had established associational standing, because its members are “likely to suffer considerable harm” to home values and property enjoyment as a result of the oil and gas operations that either have been established or are likely to be established as a result of zoning changes mandated by Act 13. Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, J-127A-D-2012, Opinion at 21-22 (Pa. 2013). The Court cited the “serious risk of alteration in the physical nature of their respective political subdivisions and the components of their surrounding environment” as the basis for the environmental group’s standing. Id. The Court further held that Ms. Van Rossum had standing in her capacity as Executive Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

By affirming that the "likely" harm from "likely" natural gas operations is not too remote a harm to confer standing, the Supreme Court has confirmed the importance of allowing groups to prevent harms to the environment before they happen, rather than reacting to damage after the fact.

Michael Helbing is a staff attorney in PennFuture's Philadelphia office.

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