Flint’s Water Crisis: A Sad Lesson on Environmental Rights

Flint Water Crisis and Our Environmental Rights

by guest blogger Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper

The toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a sad reminder for some (and a sore lesson for others) that in most of our country, there has been no recognition of citizens’ right to clean water. This crisis is bringing to the surface that while freedom of speech, religion, and assembly are asserted as inalienable rights, the same cannot be said for the freedom to have clean water and air.

In Michigan, the state constitution explicitly entrusts the legislature to, “provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.” However, if the government fails to properly protect the environment, the public’s ability to challenge that failure on constitutional grounds is limited.

But it isn’t just Michigan that’s not recognizing environmental rights; most states in our nation fail to protect the human right to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment. Pennsylvania and Montana are exceptions. In 1971, in response to centuries of environmental degradation that poisoned Pennsylvania’s air and water, damaged people’s health, and harmed the state’s economy, the state passed an amendment that put the right to pure water and a healthy environment in the state constitution’s Bill of Rights. As a result, Pennsylvanians’ environmental rights are recognized as inherent and indefeasible and protected as strongly and firmly as other political rights—such as the right free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and trial by jury.

Sadly, there are still 15 states that include no environmental protection provisions whatsoever in their constitutions. Then there are 33 other states that mandate protection of the environment to varying degrees, often focusing on fishing and hunting rights or, as in Michigan, trusting the state legislature to protect the environment—but not recognizing environmental protections as inherent rights that must be honored and protected.

In Pennsylvania, in the wake of years of damage inflicted by the coal, forestry, and other industries, then-State Representative Franklin Kury rose before his colleagues on a spring morning in 1969 and spoke the following inspiring words—words that should rouse us all to pursue constitutional recognition of our rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment in every state constitution in our nation, for the people, children, and families here today and those who are yet to be born:

I believe that the protection of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the esthetic qualities of our environment, has now become as vital to the good life—indeed, to life itself—as the protection of those fundamental political rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, of peaceful assembly and of privacy.

Our political rights are embedded in our governmental framework. But our physical environment has been depleted and damaged to the point where there is a serious question as to how long mankind can biologically exist on this planet. The situation is so serious that mankind is now considered one of the endangered species.

We must, therefore, ask ourselves whether we can insure a physical climate that will not merely allow man to exist on the earth, but also whether it can be maintained in a natural state that is compatible with man’s highest aspirations as a social creature.

Preservation of our natural resources and environment is of fundamental importance. In fact, if mankind does not solve the challenge of saving his environment, all of the other great world problems we face may well become moot. We take great pride in our Federal and State Bill of Rights, but the fundamental political rights they preserve will not mean much if mankind dies from its own putrefaction. Freedom of speech will be meaningless if we suffocate in polluted air.

While our State does have a maze of laws dealing with various aspects of our environment and natural resources, the fact is that we lack an over-all governmental framework in which to carry on the fight for conservation. We need a state government policy that is clearly stated and beyond question, one that will firmly guide the legislature, the executive and the courts alike.

And with that, State Representative Kury proposed Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, which became included in the Bill of Rights of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

ForTheGenerations.org, an environmental rights initiative of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, seeks passage of this same level of constitutional protection across our nation.

The facts on the ground make it clear. Constitutional protection that recognizes and protects our rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment as inherent and indefeasible is sorely needed in the state of Michigan, just as it is needed in every state in our nation and at the federal level. Let’s not let what happened to Flint’s water happen again, anywhere else in our country.

To learn what your state constitution says, to read about the other values and benefits of pursuing a strong constitutional provision in your state, or to get some assistance and support in how to get started visit ForTheGenerations.org.

maya_van_rossumMaya 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.

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