Prove your humanity

Since the early 1970s Pennsylvanians have had a right “to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.” That’s in an amendment to the state’s constitution.

Green Amendments for the Generations is trying to make that a reality in other states. Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper in eastern Pennsylvania, is the founder of this organization and movement. She spoke with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple their efforts.

Listen to the conversation:

Kara Holsopple: What are green amendments? 

Maya K. van Rossum: A green amendment is language that gets added to the Bill of Rights section of a state constitution and recognizes and protects the rights of all people to things like pure water, clean air, a stable climate, and healthy environments.

Because of that Bill of Rights placement and because of the choice of language that we use for a green amendment, we are literally lifting up environmental rights so they are given the same highest constitutional standing, recognition and protection as the other fundamental rights that we all hold dear–like the right to free speech and freedom of religion.

Celebrating 50 Years of Your Constitutional Right to Clean Air and Pure Water

Kara Holsopple: What’s the benefit of bypassing state and federal lawmaking with the constitutional amendment?

Maya K. van Rossum: When we use a green amendment pathway, we’re not bypassing the laws we have on the books. We’re simply using the democratic process to lift up our environmental rights and provide that constitutional oversight and guidance that all laws and all lawmakers need to properly do their work in our democratic society.

In terms of the laws that are already on the books, having a constitutional green amendment will help regulatory agencies and municipal officials, and others who have to implement those laws, understand how to interpret the language that’s included in them. 

It also provides the foundation for good government officials to pass strengthened laws, to address issues that haven’t been addressed in the law already or haven’t been addressed well enough.

It also provides a gap filler when there is an absence of law, for example, with that manmade family of chemicals known as PFAS that has been allowed to be utilized in ways that has just allowed it to slither into the environment, contaminating drinking water supplies across our nation and literally contaminating people’s bodies.

When you have an absence of law, like in that kind of situation, then a green amendment provides the opportunity for people to turn to their constitutional right to clean water and a healthy environment to secure government action.

“We really have people of all kinds of backgrounds, belief systems, and political persuasions that believe in the right of all of us to those basic essentials of life.”

Kara Holsopple: Can you give me an example of how a green amendment has been used?

Maya K. van Rossum: We have green amendments in three states: Pennsylvania, Montana, and as recently as January 2022, in the state of New York. So we actually have a number of really good examples of how green amendments work.

One in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania legislature passed a very pro-fracking law, a law that put in place automatic waivers from even minimal environmental protection standards when it came to fracking operations, preempted local zoning authorities, stripping from local municipalities the ability to identify where within their community this highly polluting industrial operation should be located.

When that law was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature and signed by the governor in 2013, it was all very legal, and all those things could have gone into play under the way the law usually works in most states. 

But because in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we have a constitutional green amendment that recognizes and protects the rights of the people to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment, we the people were able to challenge that law as one that would have devastating consequences for our environment, for our environmental rights, and where the government was actually failing to fulfill their duty to protect the natural resources of the state for present and future generations.

Because of our constitutional green amendment, we were able to successfully have those most problematic elements of the law stripped out.

Kara Holsopple: So three states have green amendments. How many are in the process of trying to get green amendments on the books?

Maya K. van Rossum: We’ve actually been able to inspire and are working with communities in 14 states where language has been proposed. There is another state where we’re anticipating language in the near future. These states are literally from coast to coast and include the Hawaiian Islands. They’re states of all different kinds of cultural backgrounds, political persuasions.

It’s not just places like Maine, New Jersey, and Delaware, but it includes states like Florida, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, Iowa, and Tennessee. We really have people of all kinds of backgrounds, belief systems, and political persuasions that believe in the right of all of us to those basic essentials of life, things like clean water and clean air, a stable climate, healthy environments and are coming together around advancing a constitutional level of protection for these basic human environmental rights.

Kara Holsopple: What does it take to get a Green amendment introduced and then passed? 

Maya K. van Rossum: Every state’s different. Generally, there are three pathways. One is a legislative pathway. You can have legislators propose the amendment, and then they have to pass it through the state legislature one or two times. It depends on the state, by varying levels of vote. And after that passage happens, the amendment bypasses the governor’s office and goes straight to the people, and the people get to decide on the next ballot whether or not they want to have a green amendment added to their state constitution. 

Often there is an opportunity for a constitutional convention, and that literally opens up the opportunity to revise the whole Constitution. Generally, we see states steering away from that because there are a lot of things in the Constitution that people like and say they don’t want to revisit the whole thing. 

The other pathway is by citizen petition. If you can get enough citizens’ signatures to advance the constitutional amendment, then you can, through some additional steps, get the amendment to go right to the people. It’s actually that citizen signature, that citizen petition process that’s being used in the state of Florida. In every other green amendment state where we’re working right now. It is going through that legislative pathway.

Kara Holsopple: As you mentioned, Pennsylvania has an environmental rights amendment that was ratified in the early 1970s. Does it go far enough? I notice your movement also includes climate, which Pennsylvania’s amendment does not specify.

Maya K. van Rossum: Pennsylvania and Montana’s amendments were actually added decades ago. Those amendments were proposed and passed at a time when people weren’t thinking about the climate in the way we are now. There were different environmental priorities. Also, Pennsylvania and Montana are their own their own unique states and have their own unique characteristics. New York is its own unique state. 

So in my Green Amendment movement, there is no cookie-cutter language for what should be in a green amendment. But there are certain criteria, for example, that it’s in the Bill of Rights section of the Constitution. And there are other criteria that people can learn about on the website.

But I go into the state, and I work with the communities that want to seek this highest constitutional recognition and protection. We use the key green amendment criteria to develop the language that is best for that state, but also learn the lessons of the past, among them being that failure to recognize explicitly the right to a safe and or stable climate.

That lack of language is part of why in Montana, in the recent youth climate litigation, a lot of time had to be spent to make the case that the right to a clean and healthful environment, which is their language, included the right to a safe climate. What I say to all the communities I work with is ‘Let’s not have to convince a judge to agree with us that the right to a clean, safe, and healthy environment includes the right to a safe and or stable climate. Let’s just say it right in the Constitution.’ So those are the kinds of modifications that we’re experiencing now. 

I do want to highlight, I’m very careful to talk about a green amendment versus an environmental rights amendment. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of environmental rights amendments in state constitutions. There are a lot of state constitutions that talk about environmental protection, but they don’t accomplish the task of giving environmental rights the highest constitutional recognition and protection.

Every green amendment is an environmental rights amendment, but not every environmental rights amendment is a green amendment. That terminology really matters and in my mind and in the Green Amendment movement.

Maya K. van Rossum is the founder of the organization Green Amendments for the Generations and author of “The Green Amendment: The People’s Fight For A Clean, Safe & Healthy Environment.” She’s also the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network since 1994.