VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — All New York residents will consider a proposal on the ballot this year to add an amendment to the state constitution meant to establish clear rights for clean air and water.
Referred to by advocates as the Environmental Rights Amendment, the language added to the state bill of rights would read as follows: “§19. Environmental rights. Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
Environmental advocates began pushing to add the amendment in 2016. They include Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates NY, who says the idea largely rooted from initiatives to stop projects that residents were concerned may lead to degradation, like the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline in South Albany.
“We were constantly asked this question by community members there and elsewhere, ‘don’t we have a right to clean air, don’t we have a right to clean water?’ And of course the answer is morally, yes, but legally the answer to that question is no,” Iwanowicz said.
At least six other states, including Pennsylvania, have similar language in their constitutions regarding environmental rights.
Experts aren’t exactly certain of any specific immediate legal implications of the amendment.
“It’s not entirely clear what legal impact this would have,” Michael Gerrard Professor of Environmental Law at Columbia Law School told WSKG in an interview. “It might make it easier for citizens to bring litigation for violations of the environmental laws, but the overall implications of it are not completely clear and would really have to be spelled out by the courts.”
That uncertainty has resonated with some groups worried that the courts may interpret the amendment in such a way that would open the door to lawsuits. In 2019, the Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce voted to express its opposition to the amendment, which was then in the legislature.
“Our government affairs council and our board thought that the legislation would create some new huge bureaucracy within the state government, which we oppose because of the potential negative impacts on the business environment,” Kari Puleo, Executive Director of the Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce, told WSKG.
Gerrard said he’s heard the concerns that the amendment could lead to a flood of lawsuits, but largely plays down the idea.
“Well, I think it will lead to at least a trickle of lawsuits,” Gerrard said. “How many of them would emerge we really don’t know.”
Iwanowicz compares the amendment to free speech or other constitutional rights that courts have ultimately shaped over the years. He thinks having it in place will itself be a reason for governments and entities to place a higher priority on environmental protection in the first place.
“My hope is that most government decision making will want to be aligned with the civil right to clean water and clean air,” Iwanowicz said. “But I’m assuming there will be some times where citizens feel like governments failed to protect that right and they may seek redress in the courts and the courts will get involved to help determine contextual boundaries and the structural boundaries of what ‘clean air and clean water’ means and what a ‘healthful environment means.’ The same way that courts have weighed in about free speech over the life of those amendments and those rights.”
On the ballot, a yes vote would be for adding the amendment. A no vote would oppose adding the amendment.