by guest blogger Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper
Rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment have been vindicated twice in Pennsylvania in this past week alone.
Pennsylvania’s recent election of state Supreme Court justices who recognize the importance of honoring all the state’s constitutional provisions, including its environmental rights amendment, was a clear demonstration that the people of Pennsylvania want their environmental rights honored as firmly as all of their rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
These election results come on the heels of a decision by the current Supreme Court justices to reject an invitation to roll back the 2013 decision that gave substantive legal strength to the environmental rights provision in the state’s constitution.
That decision, made on December 19, 2013, by the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Justice R. Castille, confirmed that by virtue of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment are inherent and indefeasible rights that belong to both present and future generations; that they are rights with the same legal standing as the rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and private property; and that they are rights that must be protected by every government official at every level of government in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Since this decision was issued, the shale gas drilling and fracking industries—along with pro-drilling government officials—have been denying that this supreme court ruling should be given the same force and effect as every other ruling issued out of the court. They have wrongly asserted that Article 1, Section 27 is a mere statement of policy with little importance.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, supported by industry, specifically petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to revisit the Robinson Twp, Delaware Riverkeeper Network ruling and to deny Chief Justice Castille’s interpretation and application of Article 1, Section 27. The state supreme court notably ignored the request.
It’s also clear that the lower courts in Pennsylvania recognize the legal authority of Chief Justice Castille’s application of the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment and seek to continue to apply and refine the legal affect of the provision. Among the refinements issued out of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2015 is that:
- “[T]he Environmental Rights Amendment places an affirmative duty on the Commonwealth to ‘prevent and remedy the degradation, diminution, or depletion of our public natural resources’—i.e., to conserve and maintain….”
- “If anything, when environmental concerns of development are juxtaposed with economic benefits of development, the Environmental Rights Amendment is a thumb on the scale, giving greater weight to the environmental concerns in the decision-making process.”
Through the recent election, the people of Pennsylvania have taken a stand that healthy lives and a healthy environment can and should be honored at the highest levels of the law.
Only a few states give the environment constitutional-level protections as strong as Pennsylvania’s. But there’s a push for other states to look to The Keystone State as an inspiration for protecting our environmental rights. Hopefully, more people will be inspired to take a stand in their own states to say that environmental rights should be given the same level of legal protection as free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and private-property rights.
Learn where your state stands at ForTheGenerations.org.
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.