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  • Susan Russell

15 Words That Will Change Your Life For the Better

October 2021

It’s a simple, short sentence. Yet it has profound implications for the well-being of all New Yorkers. On November 2nd we will have the opportunity to vote YES to add the following words as an amendment to our NYS Constitution:

“Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

The Environmental Rights Amendment declares that our right to clean air and water is on par with other inalienable political and civil liberties such as free speech, freedom of religion, due process and property.

You may be wondering why we need a constitutional amendment to preserve these basic rights? Can’t we accomplish the same thing through state laws and regulations?

The answer is “not very well.” Constitutional rights have legal teeth that statues and ordinances do not. Laws and regulations are subject to the changing whims and winds of state legislatures and politics. What’s law today can be changed in the next election. This is of particular concern for our local communities and governments.

For example, let’s pretend that a fictitious “Acme Toxic Sludge Disposal Inc.” wants to set up business over at Sinking Ponds in East Aurora. "But our town has protected it!” you declare. “ However, unbeknownst to most of us, our current legal system allows a pathway for the state to pre-empt local rule and ordinances.

Just ask the good citizens of Dryden, NY. Their town ban on oil and gas drilling was challenged in court by the Norse Energy Co. who leased several parcels of land for the purpose of drilling. The court shakily upheld the town but also left the door wide open with language that invites the NYS Legislature to preempt the local ordinance in the future. In absence of an amendment, local control is at the mercy of future state legislatures.

The Environmental Rights Amendment would negate this type of pre-emption of local will and preserve a local government’s ability to zone according to the well-being of its citizens.

Even NYS’s historical “Forever Wild” amendment, that has preserved much of our state’s beloved forests & Adirondack Park, is focused only on land and natural resources. It’s not broad enough to cover other concerns such air, water, climate change and healthy communities.

Current environmental regulations manage, authorize, and remediate pollution. They accept that pollution and contamination will occur. In contrast, the Environmental Rights Amendment shifts the view to a preventative model rather than a reactionary one. It looks at impacts before they happen.

The nuts and bolts of the amendment would require that before a legislative body passes a law or a government agency issues a permit, it will have to consider if doing so would violate a person’s right to clean air or water. Decision-makers would be obligated to minimize pollution, degradation and environmental harms. If they fail to protect these rights, this amendment could be used by the community, government, and business interests to protect themselves.

New York isn’t alone. Pennsylvania and Montana were the first to pass “green amendments”. Currently 43 other states have environmental protections in their Constitutions. They provide a necessary check on government authority and declare that it has a duty to protect the environmental rights and resources of its people.

The bill which brings this amendment to a vote has passed 2 legislative sessions in 2019 and 2021 with broad bipartisan support in the State Legislature- that alone is significant. The amendment (it’s one of four) will be on the reverse side of your ballot, so be sure to turn it over.

Please vote YES to the Environmental Rights Amendment on November 2nd!

-Submitted by Susan Russell

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