Groups seek New York constitutional right to clean air, water


Albany - Environmental and public policy groups in New York are calling for a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee residents a right to clean air and water.

Environmental Advocates of New York and EffectiveNY are promoting the proposed amendment with online video ads featuring children from Hoosick Falls, where water wells have been contaminated by an industrial chemical.

"You shouldn't have to fight for clean water," says 15-year-old Mikayla Baker, a Hoosick Falls ninth-grader featured in one of the two videos.

The groups say a constitutional amendment would give residents more power to hold state lawmakers and regulators accountable for ensuring a healthy environment.

Six states have environmental rights provisions in their constitutions. A 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment to Pennsylvania's constitution was the basis for a state Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that said municipalities have a right to zone against shale gas development. Drilling in the underground shale has resulted in public health and environmental concerns.

In Hoosick Falls, special filters were installed on public and private wells contaminated with the industrial chemical PFOA that has been linked to cancer and other illness. Residents there have accused the administration of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of being too slow to launch an investigation and warn people after the contamination came to light in 2014.

At a state Senate hearing in August, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the state followed federal guidelines in addressing the issue.

"In 2016, we saw communities in New York struggling with clean drinking water and clean air," Environmental Advocates executive director Peter Iwanowicz said. "What was missing was clear language in the state constitution giving people the right to drink water that won't make them sick and breathe air that's safe."

Oil terminals

State regulators also drew criticism this year from community residents and environmental groups for their handling of air permits for oil terminals at the Port of Albany. As a result, the Department of Environmental Conservation in September said it will require an extensive new review of permits originally issued in 2012 that turned Albany into a major hub for crude oil rail shipments from North Dakota.

"Constitutional protection means that even if a state agency or the Legislature does the wrong thing through regulation or statute, people have the ability to use our courts to get us to do the right thing," said Democratic state Senator Liz Krueger, a potential sponsor of the amendment when it's drafted.

Residents now have the right to bring lawsuits challenging environmental laws or regulations, but a constitutional amendment would give stronger weight to their arguments, Iwanowicz said.

"An environmental rights amendment helps preserve the environment, but how much it helps depends on how it's worded, how the courts apply it, and the way in which various government actors implement it," said John Dernbach, a Widener University law professor who has written about Pennsylvania's constitutional amendment.

One useful purpose of an environmental rights provision is that it prevents the state from backsliding on environmental protection when new laws and regulations are adopted, Dernbach said.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
How has the delay in schools' opening impacted your life?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
It's a disaster! We're struggling to manage work and kids at home
41% - 1966 votes
It's a struggle, but we learnt lessons from last year's closures
20% - 952 votes
It's a relief, this second wave is bad and kids need to be at home
39% - 1888 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo