The Right to Clean Water


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

My son went to the faucet for a glass of water to drink. It came out clean, clear, and fresh. He enjoyed his first sip and then gulped the rest down.

As a resident of the United States, do I have the right to expect healthy water for my son to drink? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that according to Pennsylvania’s Constitution, the answer should be a resounding “Yes”—a yes for pure water, clean air, and preservation of the natural environment.

But is that the case everywhere? And even in places like Pennsylvania, where environmental protection is being given higher priority in decision making, will it be the case if the President of the United States is given authority from Congress to sign on to the Transpacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP)?

Every day, companies are given permission to pollute water and air, to fill wetlands, to cut down forests for profit-driven development, and more. Politicians continue to pass laws that allow environmentally damaging activities to happen. Often, the decision of how much pollution and harm to allow is driven by statistical calculations, broad assumptions, and political connections.

There is a growing body of science that connects pollution, deforestation, wetlands destruction, and stream devastation with increasing cancer, autism, developmental disabilities, infertility, flooding, and drought; and yet the legality of polluting, as long as you have the necessary permits, is settled law.

Still, there is a line, or at least in Pennsylvania there now is one. When Governor Corbett overreached to help the gas-drilling industry magnify the incredible level of pollution and harm it inflicts through fracking and drilling, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania said the line had been crossed. In response, the court declared unconstitutional sections of the law that would allow drilling/fracking sites—including their liquid-pollution pits—a mere 100 feet from homes, hospitals, day-care centers, and schools. Also struck were provisions that stripped municipalities of their zoning authority and required automatic waivers of already-meager environmental provisions. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court said that the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania promised all generations of Pennsylvanians the right to pure water, clean air, and a preserved natural environment, giving them the ability to defend that right in the courts if ignored by government.

While the Supreme Court did not stop shale-gas development in Pennsylvania and all its pollution harms, this decision was an important step in the right direction for community and environmental protection. The Supreme Court recognized that the right to pure water, clean air, and a healthy natural environment are inherent rights preserved by the Pennsylvania Constitution, not granted by it. It recognized that industries cause pollution and that, as a result, people get hurt, and that it is the government’s job to ensure it is earnestly fulfilling its obligation to protect natural resources for the benefit of all generations.

We should use the wisdom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices to inspire protection that will span the nation and span the generations. But it’s not good enough to just pass this kind of constitutional protection; you also have to defend it. Today, defending that right means preventing passage of the TPP.

Leaked sections of the TPP demonstrate it is light on environmental preservation and heavy on corporate protection. The trade agreement would give foreign corporations the right to sue our government for millions of dollars if they believe a U.S. environmental law (state, federal, or local) has diminished their ability to make profits. If the U.S. signs the TPP, it would undermine the country’s environmental protections and sacrifice the sovereignty of our laws to international corporate interests.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—with provisions similar to those proposed in the TPP—a private drilling company is about to sue Canada for $250 million because of a recent ban on fracking. It’s easy to see similar suits being filed against the U.S. government because of bans to shale-gas development in New York, Colorado, and elsewhere.

On January 31, organizations from across the nation are going to be reaching out to their legislators to urge them to vote “no” on the proposed fast-track legislation, and in so doing, to shut the door on the TPP.  Be sure to add your voice via phone, email, or letter.

For information on how to speak out, visit:



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.


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One Response to The Right to Clean Water

  1. Alice Green January 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    I can’t understand how elected officials who have stated in public that they don’t want to harm our air, water, land and make our climate change worse, now are suddenly all in favor of fracking!! The only answer I can see is they have been given huge sums of money that they won’t refuse. Here in Colorado whole towns have voted to not allow fracking in their own community and our own Governor has threated to sue the whole town! It’s beyond belief that anyone who has a child or who knows a child would put money over the future of our children! We need to keep fighting for our kids’ lives and world.

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