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The Delaware Riverkeeper’s new book outlines a new approach for environmental activists

The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic 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 the people.

Sounds like the words an advocacy group might print on a flier, right?

Well, those are the words of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It's called the Environmental Rights Amendment, and it was ratified by a four-to-one ratio of the state's voters and became part of the state's foundational document in 1971.

Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, believes strongly in the power of those words to transform Pennsylvania's environmental practices to put life before profits. (A brief introduction to van Rossum follows this)

She believes so strongly that she's written a book -- "The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment."

She was in Eldred's Senior Center on a snowy Dec. 16, 2017 to speak -- passionately -- about her book and the re-imagining of our world that this Green Amendment could inspire.

As she sees it we have lots of great laws that have done well in preventing disease and death caused by environmental degradation. But the system we've set up by legislating environmentally friendly practices has in fact done, by accident, exactly the reverse.

Our laws, she says, are backward. In effect, they permit environmental degradation by regulating it, not banning it. Laws tell us how much of a toxic chemical you can empty into a stream; how much toxic effluent can still empty into the river and how much poison can be released into the air. She believes a Green Amendment would give citizens the right to demand the state act to enforce that amendment -- and not bow to industry pressure.

Van Rossum explained that even though the amendment passed in 1971, it was rendered toothless for many years because of a judicial response to what she called a "silly" overreach of the environmental movement. Without getting too much into the weeds (though you can read about it in her book), that court decision stymied any effect the new amendment could have.

Until now.

Van Rossum said that the oil and gas industry did its own bit of over-reaching by encouraging state legislators to pass Act 13 -- a major overhaul of the state's oil and gas law. Among its provisions was the right for the state to allow drilling anywhere even in defiance of local zoning laws. There were other provisions of that act that have been challenged in court, but the upshot was a clear resurrection of the 1971 amendment.

In 2013 and just this year, courts have widened the interpretation of the old amendment, meaning that environmental activists, local municipalities and every citizen of the state has the right to bring cases to court demanding their rights to clean air, pure water and a healthy environment.

Clearly, van Rossum couldn't be happier that such a tool has been placed in the hands of everyday citizens though it's not clear, she said, where we go from here, at least in Pennsylvania.

But the real reason for the book, she said, is to make the case that every state should have its own Environmental Rights Amendment. Very few now do.

That could change. New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright and New York State Senator David Carlucci are sponsors of a bill that would enact a similar amendment for New York.

Just a few weeks ago, on Nov. 30, New Jersey Assemblyman Tim Eustace announced a proposal for a similar amendment in New Jersey.

Once states embrace an Environmental Rights Amendment, van Rossum believes, there's a real possibility for a federal amendment.

Get the book: mayavanrossum.green

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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