Why a Rights-Based Ordinance?

Coal-Free Bellingham’s ordinance is about elevating the rights of people, communities, and nature above those of corporations, property, and commerce.

“Current environmental regulatory structures are mostly about “permitting” certain harms to occur – acting more to legalize the activities of corporations and other business entities than to protect our natural and human communities.”
- Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

There are four basic premises that underlie our reasons for pursuing the Coal-Free Bellingham’s rights-based ordinance:

1. Considering nature as “property” means it will continue to be exploited and destroyed.

Existing environmental laws are supported by a legal structure that favors corporations, property and commerce over people, communities and nature.  Part of the reason for the failure of current environmental laws is that under those laws, ecosystems and the other riches of nature are not deemed to have any value in themselves. They are viewed simply as “resources” or, to put it another way, as “property”. They are to be preserved only so as to be exploited. At best they provide nice views and are to be preserved for that purpose – again, not because they have any value in themselves, but only because of some utility to humans.  The general concept of “property” in our legal system is that if you own it, you have the right to use it as you see fit, or simply to destroy it.

2.  The people of Bellingham have inalienable rights to self-government and are not mere pawns of the state.

In our legal system as it stands, the above statement is not true. Municipalities have no intrinsic rights. Under legal concepts developed in the 19th century, municipalities have only the powers that the state says they have, and indeed exist only if the state says that they do. These concepts prevail in today’s legal system.

In the specific context of Bellingham’s relations to the coal trains, the existing structure of laws say that Bellingham is out of the picture. Since Washington State has not granted any right to Bellingham (or other Washington cities for that matter) either to: 1) control the traffic in coal in or through the city, or 2) to determine whether the coal port project proceeds, Bellingham – and perforce its people – have no say. They have no powers of decision.

The power in fact, lies with the corporations that are seeking to mine the coal, transport the coal, and profit substantially from the whole thing – Peabody Coal, Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad, and Goldman-Sachs.

Actually, only a few top investors in the above-mentioned corporations benefit while the rest of us pay the price in the form of economic and environmental degradation, reduced health of citizens affected by significant increases in diesel and coal particulates – not to mention the global impact of climate change from the burning and transport of coal.


3.  Where the City of Bellingham’s fundamental interests are concerned the state and federal governments may not overrule (pre-empt).

Here is another guideline that our legal system does not follow. The current system says that if the state government has adopted a rule about something, that’s the rule that applies, and local governments are barred from prescribing something different. Taking it up a level, if the federal government has legislated a law, then the states are pre-empted in the same way.

In other words, we have a system of centralized control. If the feds or the state say that things are going to be a certain way, that’s the way it’s going to be.

What this means is that big business gets to decide what goes on in local communities – not the people who live there.  More than that, big businesses are the ones who got the federal and state governments to adopt the governing rules favoring them in the first place. In fact, they wrote the rules, and then the upper levels of government adopted them and have proceeded to enforce them.

This concept of state and federal pre-emption applies big time in relation to the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights.

The first big corporations in the United States were the railroad corporations. The railroad corporations quickly understood: 1) the value of consolidation, and 2) the value (to them) of a single set of rules. If the federal government pre-empted the field of railroad regulation, the railroads wouldn’t have to contend with numerous different state rules, not to speak of municipal rules. The very first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was set up for this purpose. By now, the concept of federal pre-emption in railroad matters is well ensconced.

4.  Corporations are not “legal persons” and don’t have constitutional rights.

The fourth leg on the jerry-rigged system of laws that puts corporations over communities is the concept of corporate constitutional rights.

At this point, people seem to be generally familiar with the concept of corporate “legal personhood” and how harmful that concept is to the integrity of the legal system, the electoral system, the campaign finance system, and the political parties. Corporate “legal personhood” is indeed an abomination, simply a fabrication of Supreme Court decisions.

Actually “legal personhood” is just the top of the iceberg when it comes to the constitutional “rights” which have been granted to corporations under the Constitution.

There is nothing about corporations in the Constitution or its amendments. Corporate “rights” were simply planted by the Supreme Court.

Click below for a more detailed explanation.
Why do we need a local initiative when we have all those environmental laws?