Amendment to state Constitution guaranteeing clean air and water is proposed

Photo by Don Pollard, Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

Environmental advocates and their friends in the state Legislature are asking for a simple, direct, 15-word amendment to Bill of Rights in the New York State Constitution — a new clause stating: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

The Green Amendment (A.2064/S.2072), sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Englebright and David Carlucci, would allow the courts to prosecute cases violating the amendment.

“Our state’s constitution must be brought into the 21st century and guarantee every New Yorker the basic and fundamental rights to clean air, water and a healthful environment. Our state’s constitution has protections to worship, assemble and even play bingo. It’s time environmental protections be there too for our residents,” Carlucci said.

More than 90 advocate groups have called on the state Legislature to support the bill, and have sent every sitting lawmaker a letter that states, “a healthy environment will drive better government decision-making at all levels of government and will prevent situations or conditions in which water becomes too polluted, air too dirty, land too contaminated, and natural landscapes too decimated to support healthy lives, including a healthy economy.”

Forty-three states have some form of expression of environmental values in their constitutions; but only Montana and Pennsylvania have recognized protecting environmental rights as an inalienable right, putting environmental rights on par with other political and civil liberties.

In a 2016 report, the New York State Bar Association noted that “several other states, such as Pennsylvania, and 174 nations, have adopted and implemented constitutional ‘environmental rights,’” adding that Article 14 of the New York State Constitution, the Forever Wild clause, does not include such protections.

“Access to clean air and clean water is a fundamental human right. It should be enshrined in our State Constitution. The Green Amendment would protect our planet, and ensure that all New Yorkers are shielded from the environmental and public health hazards that disproportionately affect low-income and under-served communities across our state. Nothing could be more important, “ said Brad Hoylman, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair and a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

The amendment has passed in the Assembly for the past two years, but has not yet receive a vote in the Senate. In order for the New York State Constitution to be amended, the amendment must be passed by both the Assembly and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions. It must then pass a statewide voter referendum.

“This measure is beautiful in its simplicity,” said Assemblyman Steve Englebright, the chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee and the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, “a Constitutional amendment to ensure that clean air and water and a healthful environment are treated as fundamental rights that protect the overall health of the people and the environment.”