To the greening of the constitution
ELDRED, NY — Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum was on the road fertilizing the grassroots on December 16, visiting Eldred with a new book and a constitutional amendment to sell.
Van Rossum joined the Delaware Riverkeeper Network in 1994, became its executive director in 1996 and has since accumulated a distinguished record among environmentalists, equaled only by the ire she has spawned among those interests whose projects her efforts have helped to derail or delay.
Born and raised in the river basin, she comes at the environment by way of the law, which she says “is designed to accommodate
pollution rather than prevent it.” She is licensed to practice law in: Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. Since 2002, she has served as an adjunct professor and director of the Environmental Law Clinic, which she founded, at Temple Beasley School of Law.
Her message in Eldred was “environmental protection, how the law is failing and what we can do about it.” She provided lots of cases where laws have failed on the national, regional and local levels, including drill-worn Oklahoma’s rise as the earthquake capital of the nation, to the demise of the Delaware River Atlantic Sturgeon fishery, to the Millennium Pipeline compressor station on the Highland-Bethel border. “We don’t have the right to a clean glass of water… We do not have the right clean air or water—except in Pennsylvania and Montana,” she said.
How did that happen?
“Because Pennsylvania history is rich with environmental abuse,” a young legislator named Franklin Kury recognized that the right to a healthy environment there was unprotected. In 1969, he drafted an amendment—Section 23 of Article 1 of the state constitution—that was unanimously passed twice by the House and Senate, and then approved by a 4-to-1 majority by voters in 1971.
The amendment provided “a right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural scenic historic and aesthetic values of the environment,” as well as “a right to have public natural resources conserved and maintained by the Commonwealth for the benefit of present and future generations.”
Early on, the amendment was unsuccessfully used in what the state courts saw as nuisance lawsuits and fell into disuse, seen as “sort of a Hallmark greeting card stuck into the state constitution. Kind of like, ‘Oh, isn’t that a nice sentiment?’” as it was described in a National Public Radio “State Impact” article (tinyurl.com/y9u7aqlx).
That changed in 2013, after some provisions of PA’s Act 13 of 2012 provided carte blanche for the gas/oil industry to overturn all local land-use controls and drill anywhere it liked, within 300 feet of homes in residential neighborhoods. In response came a lawsuit, Robinson Township v. the Commonwealth, to which Van Rossum and the Riverkeeper Network became a party. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled that the industry’s preemption of local zoning was unconstitutional under Section 23, Article 1, the right to clean air and water.
Having proven the possibility of change, Van Rossum is now making a grassroots effort to effect similar legislation, to provide for the right to clean air and water in every state’s constitution, until the weight of those actions eventually leads to an amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “We have the pathway. Hold government responsible state by state,” she said.
Her book, “The Green Amendment,” not only states the problem, but provides advice on kind of grassroots organizing that could effect change.
“It’s a false premise that environmental protection hurts the economy. It’s not OK for lives to be endangered by jobs... We have an obligation to preserve and protect. The battle goes on and we have to continue to make the case. PA should be a national example,” she said.