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Life, liberty ... and a clean environment
11/22/2017 Volume XLVII, No. 47

As Americans, we have the right to free speech, the right to practice our religion of choice, and the right to peaceably assemble.

These rights are in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and we’re entitled to them - period.

But what if we had the same constitutional right to pure water, clean air and a healthy environment?

That’s the premise of a new book by Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum, “The Green Amendment: Securing our Right to a Healthy Environment.”

The book argues that our best hope for protecting water, air, land and natural resources is to give all citizens – including those of future generations – the constitutional right to a clean environment.

As riverkeeper, Maya works to protect the Delaware River and its watershed: 13,539 square miles spanning parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. It’s a tough job made tougher by the fact that much of the watershed sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a formation rich in natural gas.

The book describes the terrible impacts of shale gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing: contaminated wells, polluted streams and wetlands, toxic air, and damaged farms and communities. In 2012, the situation was made worse by Act 13, Pennsylvania legislation giving the shale gas industry the right to seize land by eminent domain. The law included a gag rule prohibiting doctors whose patients were exposed to drilling chemicals or emissions from speaking publicly about those cases.

Looking for a way to overturn Act 13, Maya and other activists turned to a 1971 amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that explicitly protects the right of people to a healthy environment and establishes the government’s obligation to protect natural resources.

This amendment states: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all people.”

In December 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court used this amendment to declare the fundamental provisions of Act 13 unconstitutional. Three years later, it also found the medical gag rule unconstitutional.

This convinced Maya that green constitutional amendments – “guaranteeing that the government has no more right to harm your environment than it does to deny you due process or overturn your right to free speech” - are a better way to protect water, air and land than legislation.

“Legislative environmentalism has had its day, and the environment is still on the brink of catastrophe – we need a new way forward,” she writes.

Right now, the deck is stacked against those who seek to protect the natural world. Environmental laws don’t really prevent degradation, she points out. They simply establish a process for permitting certain levels of pollution.

“Let’s change our constitutions to recognize that our right to life, liberty, happiness and a clean and healthy environment far overshadows the rights of others to pollute for profit,” she urges.

The book provides case studies of individuals and communities throughout the United States that have been harmed by contaminated groundwater, toxic emissions and a host of other damage.

In a section relevant to many New Jerseyans, she describes the hazards of the pipelines that transport fracked shale gas: methane gas leaks and explosions.

Other New Jersey examples fill the book: A highway through Trenton that blocked access to the Delaware River, a freight train derailment leading to toxic fumes sickening people in and around Paulsboro, and suburban zoning patterns that resulted in long-term environmental harm.

In the book’s foreword, actor and clean water activist Mark Ruffalo compares “The Green Amendment” to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book “Silent Spring,” credited with launching the modern environmental movement. “It is time to see a safe and clean environment not just as a preference or privilege, but as a fundamental right, to treat it with the same sanctity as the right of free speech,” he wrote.  

The vision of a Green Amendment can become a reality in New Jersey! Hopefully, that vision will be carried forward as a recommendation by Governor-elect Phil Murphy’s Environment and Energy transition team, to which Maya was just appointed.

To learn more about or order “The Green Amendment,” go to

And for more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at



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From whale songs to poetry, a remarkable journey

A cleaner, greener New Jersey

Let's keep New Jersey the Garden State, not the Pipeline State

New Jersey's winter hikes

'Trees don't vote' but Byrne saved Pine Barrens anyway

Governor-elect Murphy should set new course on the environment

Protect soils to keep the garden in our state

Clean, plentiful water is New Jersey's lifeblood

A breath of fresh air for New Jersey?

Keep Liberty State Park free and open

A green agenda for Governor-elect Murphy

Life, liberty ... and a clean environment

New Jersey's aging water infrastructure

The land before time: NJ's Kittatinny Ridge & Valley

While bats hibernate, scientists hope for survival

Natural Resource Damages fund new parks and preserves

Save menhaden, a humble but mighty fish

Ballot question approval would lock in environmental funds

Sandy Millspaugh: Conservation Trailblazer

Extreme hurricanes highlight concerns about climate change

'Head start' for corn snakes

Protecting the Highlands - it's the water

When you could walk from New Jersey to Morocco

A bold plan for the planet

New Jersey's energy future at a crossroads

Tiny insect will have a huge impact on New Jersey

Protect New Jersey's Pine Barrens

Enjoy New Jersey's forests!

Maine-to-Florida urban trail celebrates 25 years

Rare plants and animals need help!

Ban offshore drilling and seismic testing off NJ coast!

Summertime and the digging is easy

Is the elusive bobcat here to stay?

NJ water supply plan rings alarm bells

NJ's Piedmont: Formed by volcanoes and erosion

Defend public health and safety in state budget

'Magical' early 17-year cicadas

June and open space: Perfect together

Hit the trails on June 3, National Trails Day

Socializing with nature

Preserve land - and state's in lieu of taxes program

New Jersey's 'marl' pits yield dinosaur discoveries

Vernal pools: Now you see 'em, now you don't

State targets illegal dumpers in parks and forests

Former governors and elected leaders stand up for environment

Join CSAs to support local farms, save money, eat better

Weather extremes may be New Jersey's new normal

Bald eagles and ospreys rebound in New Jersey

Pine Barrens prescribed fires: A renewal force


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