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Environmental rights are on New Yorkers’ ballots this year

Absentee Ballots
John Froschauer

This November, if voters turn over their ballots they’ll see five proposals to amend the New York State constitution. Of the five proposals this year, the second is most certainly the most succinct.

“15 simple words, each person shall have a right to clean air and clean water and a healthful environment,” said Peter Iwanowicz, the executive director of Environmental Advocates NY.

He’s describing the proposed Environmental Rights Amendment, which, if passed, would become an added amendment to the state’s Bill of Rights.

“Many people are astonished to hear that the right to clean air and clean water isn't part of our constitution already because they think of a progressive leader like New York and an environmental leader like New York, they're confused it's not already there,” he said.

Iwanowicz said that, if passed, this will not only create a moral obligation to environmental rights but a legal one.

“Decisions that government makes will now have to be weighed against whether or not those decisions could violate a resident in New York's, you know, right to clean air and clean water,” said Iwanowicz.

He said putting it directly in the state’s Bill of Rights is especially important to its implication.

“This is an expression of the people telling governments, these are value sets that we want in the Constitution and we want you to weigh your decisions against these values such the same way you do have free speech and freedom of assembly,” he said.

The amendment was first proposed by advocates in 2017 but didn’t make it to the legislative floor in 2019. After being rejected the first time around, it finally passed through the legislature this year, bringing it to the ballot.

“The legislature has done their job. Now it's up to the voters to decide,” said Iwanowicz.

An amendment like this would give legal implications that could stop things like building chemical plants next to water wells.

While Iwanowicz sees no downsides to the bill, there have been some criticisms of its language and practicality. Some opponents have suggested its wording is too ambiguous to be properly enforced in a court of law and some have also questioned how this bill will impact existing harmful environmental practices, if at all.

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Madison Ruffo