Director Archive


Jul 1, 2017

Tom Ortmeyer

On April 24, the New York State Assembly passed bill A6279, which has been called an environmental bill of rights for New York. The wording of this bill is:

CONCURRENT RESOLUTION OF THE SENATE AND ASSEMBLY proposing an amendment to article 1 of the constitution, in relation to the right to clean air and water and a healthful environment

Section 1. Resolved (if the Senate concur), That article 1 of the constitution be amended by adding a new section 19 to read as follows:
S 2. Resolved (if the Senate concur), That the foregoing amendment be referred to the first regular legislative session convening after the next succeeding general election of members of the assembly, and, in conformity with section 1 of article 19 of the constitution, be published for 3 months previous to the time of such election.

The corresponding Senate bill is S5287, and this bill lies in committee at the current time.

The intention that each person in New York has a fundamental right to clean air and water and a healthful environment seems clear and not at all controversial. The question then becomes, is there a need to ensure this right in the New York Constitution? A quick review of this issue shows that, worldwide, at least 92 countries have similar language in their constitutions, where the United States does not. Adding such an amendment to the US Constitution is considered an involved process and considered by some difficult to be successful at this time. There is, however, active interest in adding environmental bills of rights to state constitutions. Currently, 6 states recognize this right in various forms in their constitutions. The first of these was Illinois in 1970, followed by Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, and Hawaii in the 1970’s and then Rhode Island in 1987. The beginning of the modern environmental movement in the late 1960’s clearly led to these amendments.

Pending the senate action, registered voters in New York may be asked to vote on this constitutional amendment in an upcoming election. I suspect that the question this may raise for many of us will be “is there any downside to doing this?” Frankly, I believe it may be hard to find a downside to having this protection in our constitution. Some fear that this amendment could lead to an increase in the filing of frivolous law suits, but I could find little evidence that this has been an issue in states or nations that have this constitutional protection. Another concern is that the “squeaky wheel” syndrome could divert precious environmental remediation resources to projects that may have a lower social benefit but higher public recognition. Again, I could not find evidence that this has been an issue elsewhere.

Currently, we look primarily to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that we have steady progress in improving our environmental status in the US. New York is directly involved in implementing EPA standards, and in some cases, New York has standards that exceed EPA requirements. Still, environmental improvement is an ongoing process that clearly has the goal of meeting the intent of this proposed constitutional amendment. We have made significant progress toward achieving this goal in recent past decades, but we are not done yet — and we can expect that this process will continue for decades more, regardless of the outcome of this proposed constitutional amendment. We should all look forward to an interesting discussion on this amendment should the Senate pass bill S5287.