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Coalition to promote clean air and water amendment on November ballot

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)

A newly formed coalition is joining with key state lawmakers to campaign for a ballot measure to give New Yorkers a constitutional right to clean air and clean water.

The proposal, on the ballot this November, would amend Article 1 of the New York State Constitution. Senate sponsor Robert Jackson said the change comes down to 15 simple words.

“Those powerful words are: ‘Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment,’” Jackson said.

He said the amendment will empower citizens to go to court, if necessary, to enforce those rights.

“We will finally have safeguards requiring government to consider the environment and our relationship to Mother Earth in decision-making,” Jackson said.

Polls show that voters overwhelmingly back the measure. A July 7 Siena College poll found 80% of New Yorkers support it, with just 12% opposed.

The coalition includes major environmental groups, the League of Women Voters and environmental justice advocates.

Tamsin Hollo lives in Newburgh in the Hudson Valley, where the main water supply was found to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam used for training by the nearby New York Air National Guard base.

Hollo said the city is also facing a proposed siting of a power plant. She said Newburgh, like many communities where the majority of residents are people of color, faces a disproportionate share of threats to its air and water and has been a “dumping ground” of environmental toxins since the 1920s from companies such as DuPont and General Electric.

“In Newburgh, our asthma rates are already four times higher than the state average,” Hollo said. “Our lives, statistically, are shorter. Yet corporations target communities like ours. And succeed time and time again in adding to our environmental burden.”

Business groups, which oppose the measure, say the 15 simple words could have some complicated outcomes.

The state Business Council’s Ken Pokalsky, who spoke about the amendment when it was approved by the Legislature in June, predicted that the change could prompt costly frivolous lawsuits against companies and lead to job losses. He said it leaves many unanswered questions.

“How exactly is it going to work? What will it do, who will use it and who would it be used against?” Pokalsky asked on June 22. “We do think it will create an incredible amount of uncertainty. “

Pokalsky said the state already has enough environmental regulations in place to prevent air and water pollution.

The business groups said they know they face an uphill battle in changing public opinion.

Peter Iwanowicz with Environmental Advocates NY is a former state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner. He said fears of excess lawsuits and job reductions are “overblown.” He believes the constitutional change would lead to better decisions from state regulators before a threat to clean air and water can occur.

“Decisions now will have to be screened on whether it violates a constitutional right to clean air and clean water,” Iwanowicz said. “We think it’s going to lead towards more thorough and better front-end decision-making that will reject a lot of the proposals that are out there now.”

The coalition plans to use social media to get the word out in the coming months. If approved, the constitutional amendment would take effect Jan. 1.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.