The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. “But if we are sick because we don’t have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, how can we be happy?” asks Delaware River Keeper Maya K. van Rossum.
Van Rossum is the author of the book “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.” The environmental amendment she has written about is a constitutional provision that would recognize an inalienable right to clean air and clean water. It would protect these rights in the same way it protects other fundamental rights like free speech and the freedom of religion.
Almost three dozen states mention environmental rights in their state state constitutions, but van Rossum says most of these do not give environmental rights the same status as other basic Constitutional rights. “They don’t recognize and protect clean water and air as fundamental rights in the bill of rights section,” she says.
Pennsylvania’s, passed in 1971, recognizes clean air and water as a basic civic right.
When van Rossum speaks at Princeton’s Labyrinth Books on Tuesday, June 26, at 6 p.m. she will discuss the crucial role Pennsylvania’s constitutional amendment played in overthrowing a law — known as Act 13 — that had given drilling and fracking industries the right to demand access to municipalities, including schools, residences, protected waterways and sanctuaries, public parks, and state-owned lands. The law also allowed seizure of land through eminent domain and included a medical gag rule on doctors treating patients exposed to drilling chemicals or emissions. The success in overthrowing Act 13 in 2013 marked the beginning of the movement to establish green amendments in all 50 states.
Although New Jersey does not yet include environmental rights in its constitution, a bill was introduced this past January (Resolution ACR85). “This is a powerful opportunity for residents to make New Jersey the third state [after Pennsylvania and Montana] to have a green amendment recognizing environmental rights,” van Rossum says.
“New Jersey, like other states in the nation, has a legal and political system that is really failing the people when it comes to environmental protection. Our current laws are more focused on managing and permitting pollution and land degradation rather than preventing it,” van Rossum says. She cites numerous examples from the past several decades of how the laws have failed citizens across the country. New Jersey is no exception:
Water wars: In 1931 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of diverting and rationing water from the Delaware River to New York, creating a negative impact on the population of Atlantic Sturgeon, which is among the most ancient fish still in existence. It also affected other marine and plant life and humans. Since then the river has lost wildlife to numerous dredging, nuclear, industrial, and development projects.
Gas pipelines: Despite findings from New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the PennEast pipeline application materials were so incomplete that they would could not consider the project for approval in 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced that the pipeline would not significantly impact the environment, and would therefore receive its approval.
River wall: Several Trenton homes along Route 29 now face a highway wall instead of a view of the river because of the Route 29 expansion built to accommodate large truck traffic. The expansion was approved despite research that showed it was unnecessary. The sad irony, says van Rossum, is that the state has banned large trucks from the highway, so it is not being used for its intended purpose.
Environmental racism: Newark and Camden are cities with concentrated industrial operations in proximity to low-income communities. Referring to these areas as sacrifice zones, van Rossum says that one reason they exist is that the residents have less political power in the state capitol in Trenton and at regulatory agencies. “Very literally, government officials are knowingly making decisions that are sacrificing minority communities by exposing them to higher rates of pollution and contamination as a means of supporting wealthier communities,” she says.
Dangerous gas releases: A faulty decision by a conductor caused a train derailment in Paulsboro with several cars plummeting into the Mantua Creek. The 2012 accident released approximately 20,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the atmosphere, causing nearby residents immediate and ongoing illnesses and fears about unknown long term effects.
Toxins in the water: After a lengthy fight to convince the state of New Jersey to remove toxic PFC (perfluorinated chemicals) from the state’s water supplies, the state finally agreed, but chemicals still linger in the environment in groundwater, soils, vegetation, and bloodstreams. Residents who had consumed the contaminated water over a long period of time don’t know how it will affect their health in the future.
Stormwater failure: Flooding and stream pollution are common problems in Hamilton Township as a result of faulty development plans and stormwater runoff from the use of detention basins.
Van Rossum’s book includes examples of major issues occurring in other states associated with fracking operations, including a home that exploded because of corroded gas pipelines under the house, farm animals becoming sick and dying, water from ponds and cisterns turning orange and oily, water from faucets becoming undrinkable, and homes and farmlands losing property value.
A green amendment would give citizens and municipalities legal authority to prevent or correct these kinds of situations, van Rossum says.
For its first 40-plus years, Pennsylvania’s amendment, on the books since 1971, had been ineffective because lawmakers had misinterpreted it as a mere statement of policy that lacked the force and effect of law. However, the Delaware River Network, seven municipalities, and a physician joined forces to challenge this interpretation.
The network’s legal team successfully argued to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that as a constitutional amendment to its declaration of rights — Article 1, Section 27 — it explicitly protected people’s rights to a healthy environment and made clear the government’s obligation to protect the state’s natural resources.
In December, 2013, the court recognized that the amendment put the right to a healthy environment on par with the rights to free speech and religion. Thus, the court declared the fundamental provisions of Act 13 — the ones supporting the drilling and fracking industries — unconstitutional.
“We faced down a powerful, well-funded industry group with a stranglehold over legislators and regulators and we triumphed — because we had the state constitution on our side,” van Rossum says.
Van Rossum was born in India, moved with her family to the U.S. before she was two, and grew up in the Delaware River watershed in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Although she has lived in a manner that respects and protects the environment ever since she was a child, she hadn’t thought of herself as an environmentalist growing up. Her father, a scientist, and her mother, a mathematician, were both college professors who lived in harmony with nature. They bicycled rather than drove whenever possible, reused and recycled what they could, and grew a forested area from mulch they had created from neighborhood leaves.
Van Rossum holds a bachelor’s degree from La Salle University, Class of 1988, a master of laws from Widener University, and a JD from Pace University. She lives in the watershed with her husband and their children.
She joined the Delaware Riverkeeper Network in 1994 as the executive director and is a licensed attorney Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Since 2002 she has served as an adjunct professor and founder/director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Temple’s Beasley School of Law.
A common argument van Rossum encounters is that environmental laws are economically unrealistic and burdensome. Van Rossum shows that this is simply not true, but, she says, before addressing that argument, we need to look at reality. “We are very literally talking about people’s wellbeing and sometimes, literally their ability to live. It is never OK to tell someone that you must sacrifice the health or life of your child, husband, wife, or best friend; you must sacrifice someone’s life or health so that another person in some other place can have a job.”
You would never say that to a corporate CEO, so why is it OK to say it to anyone else, she asks.
In response to the economic argument, van Rossum says there are right and wrong ways and places to develop. Building in an environmentally sustainable way stimulates quality growth and quality jobs that protects the environment at the same time. With green building practices and planning, you can create three to four more times the number of jobs, which tend to be better paying and more enduring, allowing people to start at an entry-level and move up to higher positions within the industry.
Green building can be done for any project, like building a new school or housing for a new community, she says. Proper building can prevent storm water runoff, which pollutes drinking water and causes flooding in downstream communities, costing New Jersey and its residents billions of dollars in repairing the damage.
Van Rossum’s immediate goal is to make the green amendment a reality in every state. Her ultimate goal is to install an amendment in the federal constitution. She dedicates her book (and its proceeds) to rivers, plants and animals, and the country’s future generations.