by guest blogger Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper
Forty-five years ago, communities around the nation marched to defend the earth. They brought banners, signs, chants, and a realization that environmental degradation damages every aspect of our lives. When we pollute the water, the air, and the land, people suffer—their health is affected, their recreational opportunities wane, the economy is damaged, and overall, their quality of life is diminished.
And so, on April 22, 1970—and on every Earth Day since—people have marched for change. As a result of the activism leading up to and out of Earth Day, we have seen a wave of regulations passed: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and more. But have we really secured the high-level environmental protection we’ve been seeking?
For the most part, environmental protection laws do not make it illegal to pollute; they just require government permission to do so. For example, the Clean Water Act, since its inception, legalizes water pollution to the extent that a company secures a permit.
Furthermore, there are many pollutants and sources of pollution that remain unregulated. As part of an investigation into drinking-water pollution, the Environmental Working Group found that, “nearly two-thirds (62) of the agricultural chemicals detected in tap water are unregulated, with no legally mandated limit.”
A quick look at the news demonstrates that despite the passage of environmental protection laws, the health of our environment—and therefore our communities—is far from secure.
- How Tap Water Became Toxic in Flint Michigan, CNN, January 13, 2016
- DEP Urged to Act Quickly on Hazardous Chemical Found In NJ Water Supplies, NJ Spotlight, April 1, 2016
- Study: Fracking Industry Wells Associated with Premature Birth, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, October 8, 2015
- A Disaster Waiting to Happen in Oklahoma? The Link Between Fracking and Earthquakes Is Causing Alarm in an Oil-rich Town, The Independent, April 6, 2015
Given all the laws that have been passed, how is it that our environment—which sustains every aspect of our lives and is essential for our healthy lives—is not better protected?
In fact, our right to bear arms, our right to free speech, our freedom of religion, and our property rights are among the many aspects of our lives that are better protected under the law than our right to drink healthy water or to breathe healthy air. That’s because those fundamental political rights are protected in our federal constitution and many state constitutions, while our right to clean water, clean air, healthy soils, and a healthy environment are not.
As Pennsylvania State Representative Franklin Kury said so eloquently to the House of Delegates when discussing the proposal and passage of an Environmental Rights Amendment to be added to Pennsylvania’s Bill of Rights in its Constitution,
The Bills of Rights added to our state and federal constitutions made no mention of protecting our natural environment because there was no need to; the future of our natural resources was taken for granted.
Now that situation has altered. Our political environment is strongly protected…but population and technology have run amok through our environment and natural resources. If we are to save our natural environment we must therefore give it the same Constitutional protection we give to our political environment.
These words, said around 1970, are even more applicable today—especially as we have watched increasing development and new technologies, such as fracking, impact our environment in devastating ways.
Right now, there are only two states with strong constitutional provisions protecting environmental rights: Pennsylvania and Montana. There are 33 other states that have varying provisions that mention the environment but fail to protect the right to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment as firmly and highly as other political rights. There are 15 states that have no protections whatsoever. If you want to learn what protections states do or do not have, you can find it in the toolkit at ForTheGenerations.
We have seen the power that political organizing can have in advancing this cause and bringing critical change. We’ve come a long way, but we have much more to do to protect our environment and secure our collective future. This Earth Day, join the movement to secure protection of our environment as a constitutional right.
- If you want a speaker to come to your community (free of charge) to talk about constitutional environmental rights and help inspire your community to advance a strong protection in your state, send a request through the ForTheGenerations Facebook page or send an email to ForTheGenerations@delawareriverkeeper.org.
- To learn more, watch this recent TEDx talk on the subject.
- Read more about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that made the case for environmental rights as inherent and indefeasible rights: Robinson Township, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, et al. v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper, and has led the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) since 1994. The DRN is a regional nonprofit advocacy organization that monitors the river and all of its tributaries for threats and challenges, and advocates, educates, and litigates for protection, restoration, and change.