Constitutional amendment on ballots this Tuesday would guarantee clean air and water

Legislative Gazette file photo
The Sheridan Ave. power plant in the city of Albany has been considered by many organizations and activists to be a symbol of environmental racism for many years. A proposed constitutional amendment before the voters on Tuesday, Nov. 2 would give citizens more legal rights to fight pollution in their communities.

On Election Day, New York state voters will have the option of voting for the constitutional right to clean air and clean water, joining three other states that guarantee these environmental protections.

On November 2, voters will see the following question, among others, on the back of their ballots, regardless of where they live: “The proposed amendment to Article I of the New York Constitution would establish the right of each person to clean air and water and a healthful environment. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?”

This question will be posed alongside four other proposed constitutional amendments regarding voting accessibility, amending the redistricting process and doubling the value of claims that can be presented to the New York City Civil Court system. 

The amendment included in Proposal 2, titled the Environmental Rights Amendment, would amend the Bill of Rights in the New York State Constitution. If passed, it will add Section 19 to the Bill of Rights, ensuring that each New Yorker is entitled to “…a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” 

Enshrining the right to clean air and water in the state Constitution would, in practice, require lawmakers to consider the impact on clean water, clean air, and the environment when proposing future legislation and voting on bills.

It would also allow New Yorkers to sue if they believe their rights to clean water, clean air, or a healthful environment are being violated.

According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which published an analysis of this and other “green” amendments in state legislatures, “proponents in New York have generally framed the amendment in terms of expanding rights, establishing standing for communities to be able to bring legal cases forward when harm has or may be caused. They argue preventing such environmental health harms will increase long-term economic and human health benefits,” the analysis states.

“Opponents, on the other hand, have framed the amendment with respect to concerns about lack of specification within the amendment’s language, significant increases in litigation, and increases to the costs of doing business.”

“In practice, this amendment will require government to consider the environment and its citizens’ relationship to it in all decision making,” said Environmental Advocates of New York spokesman Brian Keegan when the bill authorizing the amendment passed the Senate in February. “It also creates a powerful tool for combating environmental racism and rebalancing the inequities communities of color and low-income communities face from disproportionate exposure to pollution and other environment-harming practices.”

While some states have been working on amendments similar to the one facing voters this November, only Montana, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have a protected right to a healthy environment within their state constitutions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Other states including Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia are in various stages of creating such a right. New York is the furthest along, with the amendment headed to voters this coming Tuesday.