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Suffolk Closeup: The right to a healthy environment

On the ballot in New York State on Election Day this Nov. 2 will be what is being called “the Green Amendment.” It would be an important and powerful addition to the State Constitution. The Green Amendment declares: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

Its prime sponsor in the State Assembly is Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee and an official from Suffolk deeply committed to environmental causes.

“It is simple,” he says. It would allow every New Yorker “to know that you can raise a family and pass on to the next generation a clean and healthful environment. This proposal is based on the premise that these rights are fundamental … and should be reflected in the state’s Constitution.”

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), a Suffolk official, too (his district includes Shelter Island), who has long championed environmental causes, is a leading sponsor of the Green Amendment. He says: “It is a great thing.” By providing “a Constitutional right to clean air and clean water and a healthful environment, it elevates environmental policy and initiatives.”

In the State Senate the prime sponsor is Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan). He comments that “to add 15 words to the Constitution of our state, we are helping shape the future of New York … If the voters approve it in November, this language will finally put in place safeguards to require the government to consider the environment and our relationship to the Earth in decision making. If the government fails in that responsibility, New Yorkers will finally have the right to take legal action for a clean environment because it will be in the State Constitution.”

That prospect has led to opposition by The Business Council of New York State. In a memorandum to the legislature, it says it “fails to see the benefit in providing a direct right of action under the State Constitution to remedy an environmental condition because there are numerous adequate remedies available under current state law.”

Challenging this is Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum, key in the initiative for a Green Amendment in New York State and states through the U.S., and in the U.S. Constitution, too. She is the author of a significant, superb 2017 book, “The Green Amendment, Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.”

“Passage of a Green Amendment in New York would be as beneficial for the businesses of New York as it would be for the people,” says Pennsylvania-based von Rossum. “A Green Amendment does not pit people and the environment against business, it joins them together in a common cause that benefits everyone.”

An attorney, she says that “current … environmental protection laws are not truly recognizing and protecting the rights of people to a healthy environment. This is as much the case in New York as in other states across the nation.”

“A Constitutional right,” she says, “would provide appropriate access to the courts in those situations when our governmental decision makers are not honoring the inalienable right of all people to a healthy environment, including when our current … environmental laws are allowing damaging levels of pollution and degradation to pass unchallenged.” A Green Amendment, she says, would give people a right comparable to Constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press receive.

Getting an amendment to the New York Constitution adopted isn’t easy. Passage in two sessions of the State Assembly and State Senate and then approval by the voters is necessary.

Leaders of 70 organizations in New York have announced their support for the Green Amendment.

They represent groups including; the League of Women Voters; Save the Sound; New York Public Interest Research Group; Food & Water Action; Long Island Progressive Coalition; Long Island Chapter Surfrider Foundation; and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

Their joint statement notes that “while” the state’s Constitution includes a “Conservation Article” which says “the policy of the state shall be to conserve and protect its natural resources,” it is “limited in scope and only recognizes environmental protections as important public policy, not as a fundamental right.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo, who starred in the 2019 film “Dark Waters” based on the real-life legal battle against DuPont over its massive dumping of a toxic chemical that contaminated drinking water, writes the foreword to Ms. von Rossum’s book. He compares it to “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that combined with her efforts, he notes, “are often credited with sparking the birth of the modern environmental movement.”

The book “The Green Amendment,” he writes, “has the power to spark a new movement, just as Rachel Carson’s did.”