In 2011, the Canadian province of Quebec granted Montreal-based utility giant Gastem a drilling permit to explore the eastern part of the territory for oil and gas. The company settled on a spot of land in the tiny village of Ristigouche Sud-Est, population: 157.
The town quickly grew concerned over their water supply, and how Gastem’s nearby drilling operations might negatively impact it. As a result, the town passed a new ordinance introducing a two kilometer no-drill buffer zone around their water supply, effectively halting Gastem’s drilling efforts. The company sued the town last year for C$1.5 million ($1.2 million USD), arguing that they weren’t consulted when the local board passed the bylaw prohibiting drilling.
For a town with fewer than 200 residents, a C$1.5 million lawsuit would effectively bankrupt the entire community. Even when Gastem’s claim was reduced to $984,000, the damages would have been three times the size of the town’s annual budget.
On Wednesday, a provincial judge sided with Ristigouche Sud-Est.
“Reason and law prevailed today,” said Mayor François Boulay in a statement, according to The Guardian. “We are relieved that our right to protect our drinking water is finally recognised.”
In addition to throwing out Gastem’s claim, Judge Nicole Tremblay made the company pay half of the town’s legal fees, and an additional $10,000 to cover other expenses related to the suit. During the case, the town was forced to crowdsource their legal expenses, raising more than $342,000 from local residents, supporters, and environmental groups.
“Public interest, the collective well-being of the community and the safety of residents must be weighed for all projects introduced into a municipality,” said Tremblay in her decision.
Local communities around the world have been forced to defend their water supplies from oil and gas companies for years. In Barnesville, Ohio (population: 4,100), a $600 million fracking company sued the town for access to its water supply. Another fracking company threatened the water supplies of local towns in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, prompting another series of lawsuits.
And the fears of local residents are well-founded. In Oklahoma, the state’s Clean Water Fund found that local oil and gas waste wells could be spilling into the water supplies local municipalities rely on. In California, oil companies have been ordered not to drill in proximity to local water supplies. One recent study found that fracking is putting enormous stress on local water supplies as well.