Should The Right To A Clean Environment Be In Constitution?

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  MANCHESTER – Members of the township’s Environmental Commission looked beyond the borders of Manchester – focusing on a national movement that would give more voice to environmentalists seeking to protect natural resources.

  Environmental Commission Chairwoman Peggy Middaugh introduced Maya Van Rossum to the rest of the commission during a recent zoom format meeting which was open to the public.

  Van Rossum is the founder for the national Green Amendment, a movement that she hopes will soon reach the New Jersey legislature and will be accepted nationwide. She has served as the leader of the Delaware River Keeper Network since 1994. She is the author of “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right To A Healthy Environment.” She is an attorney and in 2002 has served an adjunct professor and director of the environmental law clinic.

  The Green Amendment is a movement to change the state – and later federal – constitution that would give all residents the right to have a clean environment.

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  “I thank you for your interest and I hope your support in helping us advance it in the state of New Jersey,” Van Rossum said. Through screen sharing during the meeting, she shared the story behind the amendment’s development and its purpose.

  Middaugh said that “pushing the Green Amendment was on the goals of the Environmental Commission this year. We are with you all the way!”

  Commission members would speak later regarding the development of a resolution in support of the amendment.

  “I’ve come to believe and recognize that advancing this Green Amendment is vitally important because our current environmental protection laws have fundamentally failed. There are other environmental organizations in the state of New Jersey that are part of this movement,” Van Rossum said. Among the organization were Clean Water Action and the New Jersey Sierra Club.

  She added, “I am working with them to advance this cause primarily in New Jersey. When I say to people we need a new path for environmental protection in New Jersey and states across our nation and the United States as a whole, people are often perplexed.”

  Van Rossum said they refer to her “the fact that in New Jersey and across our nation we have thousands if not hundreds of thousands of environmental protection laws in place. We have agencies, policies and programs and regulatory regimes all of which are supposed to be advancing environmental protection and so how is it possible that there is need for something more or something different?

  “It is very possible because the way our system of government and laws work in New Jersey and nationwide is that they really leave thinking about environmental protection until the end of the decision-making process. When really all that is left to be thought about is how are we going to permit? How are we going to manage the pollution and the degradation that we have already agreed up front, is going to happen?” she added.

  Van Rossum continued saying, “how do we manage the who, the where, the how much on this system and government and law is not focused on how we are going to prevent pollution and degradation in the first place. There are also a lot of gaps in the laws we have. You may have heard about contamination of drinking water in areas of the state and the nation. That is because of a huge gap in environmental protection laws.”

  “That is just one example of the many gaps we have in environmental laws and often there is poor implementation of the environmental laws we do have on the books,” Van Rossum said, adding that there were some elected officials who do not recognize the importance of environmental protection and work to roll back some of the environmental laws that are currently on the books.

  She added that within the current system of laws in how they are written and implemented, “we actually have built-in racism with communities of color, indigenous communities, immigrant and low-income communities constantly and consistently being sacrificed to highly polluting environmentally degrading actions and activities.”

   “There truly is something missing,” she said. One aspect missing, according to Van Rossum, is that the environment was not being recognized in the same way “as other rights such as the right to free speech and freedom of religion.”

  Van Rossum is advocating for this right to be recognized in the Bill of Rights section of federal and state constitutions. She said that in Pennsylvania a lawmaker added “a Bill of Rights provision that recognizes the rights of all people to clean air and pure water and healthy environments.”

  It also recognized “that every governmental official on every level of government is duty bound to protect the natural resources of the state for the benefit of all the people including future generations,” Van Rossum said adding that the first time the law was put into strong use was to oppose a pro-fracking measure that had been passed by the Pennsylvania legislature and by the governor.

  Van Rossum’s organization opposed the measure using the provision to challenge the pro-fracking plan and got “an amazing victory.”

  Commission member Rory Wells said the amendment “put more power from the legislature to the courts.”

  Van Rossum said it actually, “gives more power to the people. People are taking back power that they never wanted to give up in the first place.”

   What Pennsylvania has, would be adapted through this movement for state constitutions. While Middaugh was prepared to propose a resolution supporting the Green Amendment for New Jersey, Wells said he was not prepared to vote on a resolution until he gathered some input from local lawmakers and possibly from other legislators in the state.

  Member Bill Foor agreed with Wells in seeking further input from legislators.

  Wells noted that the state “already has a difficult business climate reputation and we obviously compete with neighboring states and we are already pretty progressive in terms of our environmental laws although they are needed because we are a heavily industrial farming state for so long and we had to play catchup. Now it seems we are moving along pretty quickly with our environmental protections.”

  “I just wonder if the passing of the amendment would have a chilling effect on business. Have you met with some of the business leaders in the state and has their reaction been negative or mixed? Are they willing to listen?” Wells asked.

  “It is kind of a mixed bag,” Van Rossum said adding that the idea that the argument of protecting the environment was in some way anti-economic development was not accurate. “It is incumbent upon us as leaders in our communities to prove the point and it is very provable, that a healthy environment actually supports a healthy economy,” Van Rossum said.

  New York has also advanced the Green Amendment having passed in the assembly and senate houses once and needs to pass them again to be approved, Van Rossum noted.