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Life, liberty … and a clean environment

By Michele S. Byers

As Americans, we have the right to free speech, the right to practice our religion of choice and the right to peaceably assemble. These rights are in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and we are entitled to them – period.

But what if we had the same constitutional right to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment?

That is the premise of a new book by Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum, “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.”

The book argues that our best hope for protecting water, air, land and natural resources is to give all citizens – including those of future generations – the constitutional right to a clean environment.

As riverkeeper, Maya works to protect the Delaware River and its watershed: 13,539 square miles spanning parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. It is a tough job made tougher by the fact that much of the watershed sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a formation rich in natural gas.

The book describes the terrible impacts of shale gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing: contaminated wells, polluted streams and wetlands, toxic air, and damaged farms and communities.

In 2012, the situation was made worse by Act 13, Pennsylvania legislation giving the shale gas industry the right to seize land by eminent domain. The law included a gag rule prohibiting doctors whose patients were exposed to drilling chemicals or emissions from speaking publicly about those cases.

Looking for a way to overturn Act 13, Maya and other activists turned to a 1971 amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that explicitly protects the right of people to a healthy environment and establishes the government’s obligation to protect natural resources.

This amendment states: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all people.”

In December 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court used this amendment to declare the fundamental provisions of Act 13 unconstitutional. Three years later, the court also found the medical gag rule unconstitutional.

This convinced Maya that green constitutional amendments – “guaranteeing that the government has no more right to harm your environment than it does to deny you due process or overturn your right to free speech” – are a better way to protect water, air and land than legislation.

“Legislative environmentalism has had its day and the environment is still on the brink of catastrophe – we need a new way forward,” she writes.

Right now, the deck is stacked against those who seek to protect the natural world. Environmental laws do not really prevent degradation, she points out. They simply establish a process for permitting certain levels of pollution.

“Let’s change our constitutions to recognize that our right to life, liberty, happiness and a clean and healthy environment far overshadows the rights of others to pollute for profit,” she urges.

The book provides case studies of individuals and communities throughout the United States that have been harmed by contaminated ground water, toxic emissions and a host of other damage.

In a section relevant to many New Jerseyans, she describes the hazards of the pipelines that transport fracked shale gas: methane gas leaks and explosions.

Other New Jersey examples fill the book: A highway through Trenton that blocked access to the Delaware River, a freight train derailment leading to toxic fumes sickening people in and around Paulsboro, and suburban zoning patterns that resulted in long-term environmental harm.

In the book’s foreword, actor and clean water activist Mark Ruffalo compares “The Green Amendment” to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which is credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

“It is time to see a safe and clean environment not just as a preference or privilege, but as a fundamental right, to treat it with the same sanctity as the right of free speech,” Ruffalo wrote.

The vision of a Green Amendment can become a reality in New Jersey. Hopefully, that vision will be carried forward as a recommendation by Governor-elect Phil Murphy’s Environment and Energy transition team to which Maya was appointed.

To learn more about or to order “The Green Amendment,” go to http://bit.ly/GreenAmendmentLearnMore.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.

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