By Linda Greenstein and Maya K. van Rossum
A new vision for environmental protection is taking hold in America with New Jersey leading the way. The state Senate is proposing the passage of an amendment to the state’s constitutions or “Green Amendment,” that will recognize and protect an individual’s rights to clean air and water, and a healthy environment as inalienable human rights deserving of the highest constitutional and legal protection.
While state constitutions across our nation guarantee the rights of free speech, freedom of religion, trial by jury, and many other fundamental freedoms, they do not recognize and protect our inalienable right to clean water, clean air and healthy environments. The same is true with our federal constitution.
With the passage of a bipartisan bill (ACR85 and SCR134) being advanced by state Senators Linda Greenstein, a Democrat, and Kip Batemen, a Republican, and its Assembly companion led by Assembly members Nancy Pinkin, John McKeon, and Daniel Benson, New Jersey would be the first state in over 40 years to pass a state Green Amendment bill. The question will then go to voters in the fall.
According to The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right To A Healthy Environment, there are only two states in the nation that recognize and protect environmental rights at this highest level: Pennsylvania and Montana, which both passed provisions in the early 1970s. While other state constitutions talk about the environment in a variety of ways, they do not give it bill of rights recognition and protection.
Constitutional provisions that recognize every person’s right to a clean and healthy environment as inalienable; and clearly identify a state’s obligation to act as trustee to protect the state’s natural resources are sorely needed. The misplaced focus of current state and federal laws on issuing permits that allow pollution and environmental degradation puts the focus on management rather than prevention. It also opens the door for new administrations, like President Trump or anti-environment governors, to easily weaken the laws on the books with regulatory rollbacks or weakened enforcement.
As a result of the current management approach to environmental regulation, communities continue to be harmed by pollution and environmental degradation. Communities in 27 states have drinking water that is contaminated with a manmade family of chemicals known as Perfluorinated chemicals (PFC), known carcinogens that can also cause developmental delays in children and impact the immune system, liver, prostate or kidneys.
According to the American Lung Association, over 40 percent of people in the United States are living in counties that have unhealthy levels of air pollution (source). In addition, legally discharged pollution is increasing global warming and the severity of dangerous storms impacting communities across our nation. Species are being lost at an unprecedented rate. More than 1,300 toxic superfund sites continue to expose communities and environments to a wealth of harmful chemicals, and the list goes on.
The proposed Green Amendment will require government to prioritize environmental protection when issuing permits, advancing energy creation, approving development, as well as crafting and implementing legislation and regulations. This is what is now happening in Pennsylvania which, through a successful legal action, has been required since 2013 to embrace its state Green Amendment.
Passage of New Jersey’s Green Amendment will enhance economic development and job creation. As compared to the fossil fuel industry, there is significant growth and career potential in clean energy sectors with clean energy jobs exceeding coal and natural gas jobs on the order of 5 to 1, including in manufacturing, construction, sales and management. Environmentally protective commercial and housing development projects sell more quickly and for more money than traditional development with the inclusion of trees increasing the market value of homes by up to 15%; at the same time they help improve community quality of life and reduce runoff that contributes to pollution and flooding.
In addition to preventing new harm, Green Amendments can help address ongoing problems that cause communities to suffer. For example, a Green Amendment in Michigan could have provided a strong constitutional argument for swift and firm action to restore the right to access clean water for the children and families of Flint.
Given that we all depend upon clean water, clean air and a healthy environment to support and sustain our lives and healthy economy, it is right and appropriate that they should be protected with the same legal strength that we protect the other rights we hold dear. That is what New Jersey’s Green Amendment will accomplish.