New Yorkers plan campaign for a state constitutional right to clean air and water

New Yorkers plan campaign for a state constitutional right to clean air and water

EffectiveNY and Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY) have initiated a draft of a New York State constitutional amendment right to clean air and water. In the wake of new federal executive orders concerning the state of climate change and environmental reform, representatives look to provide New Yorkers the legal mechanisms they need to take a stand.

This past Tuesday morning (Jan. 24), President Donald Trump signed executive order ensuring the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL) projects in North Dakota move forward. The action came just two months after the pipeline development was halted by former President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers. By Tuesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants had been frozen. Furthermore, employees were banned from talking to press, updating the website or posting on social media.

“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule,” President Trump’s America First Energy Plan states.

The plan, posted on the website during the inauguration ceremony, has replaced Obama’s climate change site which addressed the problem of climate change and the former president’s administrative plans to slow its progression.

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged,” the site previously read. “Through steady, responsible action to cut carbon pollution, we can protect our children’s health and begin to slow the effects of climate change so that we leave behind a cleaner, more stable environment.” Additionally, the Waters of the U.S. rule, as stated by the EPA, gives the organization the power to “clearly protect the streams and wetlands that form the foundation of the nation’s water resources.”

In the meantime, New York State legislators and local community members have started work to combat the upcoming federal action from within the state. Experts believe this could help keep states like New York from losing progress in environmental protection. “I can’t say that it can guarantee us environmental protection but it would strengthen the hand when facing the challenge,” State Senator Liz Krueger said. “It would be stronger than what we have in place.” The senator has been in discussion with environmental organizations to properly craft the wording of a potential amendment to the New York State Constitution.

The New York-based organizations are working with Delaware Riverkeepers, a non-profit organization working on the federal level in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York with regulations, legislation, policies and programs that impact the health of Delaware River Watershed waterway. The group has been active in constitutional environmental rights in the past. Recently, the Riverkeepers challenged Pennsylvania’s Act 13, an oil and gas law passed in 2012. Using the Environmental Rights amendment to the state constitution stating a citizen’s right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” advocates argued the law was in violation. It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in September 2016. Now, they aim to help provide New Yorkers with same opportunity.

“[President Trump’s executive orders] will be disastrous. It’s not a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of ‘when’,” said Travis Proulx of EANY. “Trump is not only living up to, but exceeding his threats against public health and the environment. A constitutional right is the best way to fight this.”

“They’ve put together some useful material looking at other states that are using different language. There’s no ‘one size fits all,’” Krueger explains. “Every state uses a very specific language. It’s a much more complicated concept than it seems.” The organizations plan to complete the draft within the next few weeks in order to introduce it as soon as possible. They hope to get it moving through the legislative process within this year.

The plan of action, however, did not come originally from the organizations. EANY has credited the idea to New York’s children living in the affected areas of water and air contamination such as Hoosick Falls and the South End in Albany.

“A lot of folks in New York State don’t know they don’t have the right to clean air and clean water, and that’s not a problem until there’s a crisis.” Proulx said. In December 2016, EANY began producing short videos featuring children of Hoosick Falls talking about the consequences they suffer from water contamination. As reported by Jill Adams in issue 10 of The Alt, Hoosick Falls discovered the presence of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their water in 2014.

“The kids carry this weight. They’re the one’s carrying up jugs from the basement and saying, “careful, don’t touch the water,’” Michelle Baker of Hoosick Falls said. “What’s motivated the kids has been sitting back and watching the struggle and the guilt of their parents. They’ve asked us, ‘What can we do?’”

Her daughter Mikayla Baker starred in one of the first video ads for the campaign. “It’s ridiculous that we should even have to ask for the right of clean water and clean air,” she said.

“My daughter was born and raised on PFOA. This is not the way kids should be brought up in New York State in 2017,” her mother told The Alt.  They should not fear their water.”

10-year-old Lawrence of Albany’s South End stars in the second round of videos featuring AVillage… Inc. President Willie White. Lawrence’s video shows viewers just how close the “bomb trains” that pollute the air of his community are located to where his lives,and plays. He stands in the basketball court behind Ezra Prentice. “This is the playground,” he says, pointing. “That’s where I live, and there’s the train tracks.” Each location is less than 100 feet away. The citizens and organizations are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to take action by adopting the incoming amendment.

[The draft] is driven by people and their stories,” said Proulx. “There are millions in New York State who have been drinking contaminated water or breathing dirty air and don’t even know it, but [these kids] do know and they’re speaking up.”

photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

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