Nashville —Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has defeated an attempt by the State of Tennessee and Waste Management Inc. to obtain the group’s membership list as a condition for challenging a landfill permit. The victory means that non-profit groups who file citizen complaints do not need to divulge their membership rolls or other internal details that are not pertinent to their objections.
PEER is a service organization for public employees, whose membership lists include thousands of current state and federal employees. Disclosure of their names could have jeopardized their careers. PEER filed a motion arguing that the secrecy of its membership is protected by First Amendment freedom of association, as well as state and federal law.
“We will never surrender our membership list for any reason,” stated PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, noting that confidentiality is the hallmark of the group. “In our 14 years of existence, PEER has never breached an employee confidence and we are not about to start now.”
The underlying dispute involves a state permit allowing Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) to expand a demolition waste landfill along the Cumberland River. Among the issues raised by PEER is that the site WMI wants to develop includes wetlands that had been set aside to be “preserved in perpetuity” as mitigation for an earlier expansion into another wetland.
“To Waste Management and the state, in perpetuity means only about ten years,” remarked Barry Sulkin, former head of enforcement for the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) water pollution program and now Director of the Tennessee office of PEER. “The identity of our members is irrelevant to whether the state acted illegally in granting this permit.”
Waste Management moved to force PEER to disclose its membership rolls as a condition of waging the challenge, arguing, among other things, that PEER members could include employees of state and federal regulatory agencies, such as the TDEC and the Army Corps of Engineers, who were acting as “double agents” against their employers. TDEC moved to join WMI’s demand.
As a result of PEER’s legal filing, an administrative judge for the state Water Quality Control Board allowed the organization to pursue its permit challenges without having to disclose its membership.
A neighboring African-American group, called “Bordeaux Beautiful,” has joined PEER in contesting the WMI permit. Local elected officials are also joining the fight against the landfill expansion. Nashville attorneys Elizabeth Murphy and Greg Buppert are representing PEER in the case.
“Now the real battle begins,” Sulkin added. “This fight is against more trash in the wetlands.”