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Shaping Up for a Big Fight in NJ on Question of Right to a Clean Environment

Supporters seek voter approval for constitutional amendment to copperfasten people’s right. Opponents warn of endless litigation and a stifling of economic development

maya van rossum
Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper: Amendment "will provide a backstop for citizens..."

Is a right to a clean and healthy environment an inalienable right as self-evident as free speech and freedom of religion?

It is in Pennsylvania and Montana. And, if a bill moving through the state Legislature wins approval, New Jersey could follow suit.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a resolution this week that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to recognize that every person has a right to a clean and healthy environment.

The proposal (SCR-134) could serve as a check on governmental authority, according to Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), its sponsor. The goal is to advance better decision-making to prevent environmental harm, she said.

“This amendment will ensure that every governmental official, now and into the future, will give protecting the right to clean air, a stable climate and a healthy environment the same high priority in decision making as protecting property rights, civil rights and advancing sustainable industries, energy and development,’’ Greenstein said.

NJ has tough environmental laws, but…

New Jersey has long boasted some of the toughest environmental laws in the nation. But sometimes, even those laws fall short of protecting natural resources and drinking water, according to proponents of the proposed amendment.

With climate change — and a coastal shore increasingly vulnerable to a projected sea-level rise — New Jersey faces tough choices to protect its coastal economy, according to Margo Pellegrino of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

“When necessary, it will provide a backstop for citizens to take action when government officials get it wrong,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper and author of the book The Green Amendment.

In Pennsylvania, the so-called green amendment helped strike down a law requiring municipalities to allow fracking, the controversial practice of injecting huge quantities of water and tiny amounts of chemicals into shale formations to extract natural gas, according to Jordan Yeager, an attorney in the case.

Heather Payne, an associate professor at Seton Hall University’s Law School, said there is a growing trend — internationally, if less so in the United States — to recognize the right to a healthy environment.

Get ready for the fight

“Right now, there are many actions where the impact on environment is not accounted for even though local governments are more attuned to constituents’ concerns,’’ Payne said.

But establishing such a right in the constitution here in New Jersey faces a big fight.

Some of the most powerful interest groups oppose the ballot question, including the New Jersey Builders Association, the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey.

Among other objections, they question whether such an amendment will stifle economic growth and lead to endless litigation over permit decisions to spur development across the state.

That latter point was disputed by advocates. “We don’t have this onset of frivolous litigation,’’ said van Rossum, who has been traveling around the country pushing the amendment in various states.

Voters to decide next year?

“Given that we all depend upon clean water, clean air and a healthy environment to support and sustain our very lives, it is right and appropriate that they should be protected with the same legal vigor and strength that we protect other fundamental rights, such as free speech and freedom of religion,’’ she said.

Just a year ago, New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment to dedicate money that came from lawsuits over natural resources damages to be used exclusively for restoring those areas.

Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-16), a co-sponsor of the resolution, called the measure a very important step. “If we don’t get a handle on the environment in the next 20 year, the next generation is going to pay the price,” he said.

It is too late to get the question on this November’s ballot, but if approved by voters next fall, it could take effect the following March.

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