“Each person shall have a right to clean air and water”
Voters across the state have the opportunity on Nov. 2 to add an amendment to the New York Constitution stating that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
That isn’t a summary of the amendment. It’s the amendment.
“It’s purposefully very simple,” said Corinne Bell, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’ve seen in other states that while the language can be vague, it’s a powerful tool; the courts and citizens have the ability to define the terms.”
Matt Salton of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which is based in Beacon, said the proposal “is not a piece of legislation. It’s adding a core value to our state Bill of Rights to signal that New York cares about the environment and is putting it in its founding document.”
The text is far too simple for some. Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, was one of the few state lawmakers to vote against the proposed amendment both times it came up for a vote, in 2019 and 2021. (In order for an amendment to make it onto the ballot, it must first pass two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature.)
“Of course we all support clean air and water and we must take meaningful steps to protect our environment and ensure the health and quality of both,” she said. “However, when it comes to legislation, details matter and this provision is lacking any.
“I cannot support a proposal without knowing exactly what it will mean for our community, and this proposal was written so broadly and with no parameters for implementation. I worry about the impact it will have on the cost of living and job availability in our local area.”
The amendment appears on the ballot as Proposal 2 and mirrors propositions approved by voters in Montana and Pennsylvania. The Montana amendment was used to fight the dumping of arsenic-polluted waters into rivers, and this summer a Montana judge cited the amendment in allowing a court case to progress in which a group of teenagers are suing the state for promoting a fossil-fuel reliant energy system. In Pennsylvania, the amendment was cited in 2012 to override a local law that tried to block communities from being able to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
New York has set an aggressive state goal to decarbonize 70 percent of its energy grid by 2030, and reach zero emissions by 2040, but so far hasn’t laid out too many specifics. The state Climate Action Council is expected to soon release a “scoping plan,” and Salton said that the proposed amendment could help to empower it.
“You can make the case that not to [reach the state’s climate’s goals] would be in violation of this core tenet” stated by Proposal 2, he said. “Having this amendment on the books will give lawyers and lawmakers the prodding they need to protect the environment and in doing so build renewable energy projects and at the same time curbing the number of fossil fuel plants we have online.”
Bell agreed, noting that “there aren’t a lot of laws at the state or federal level that address climate change.”
In a Sienna College poll of registered voters in New York conducted in June, 80 percent said they supported the amendment, while 8 percent were unsure.
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