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NY Environmental Rights Amendment Heads to Voters

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Friday, February 12, 2021   

ALBANY, N. Y. - New York is poised to become one of only three states to enshrine the inalienable rights to clean air and water in its state Constitution.

The State Assembly this week passed the "Environmental Bill of Rights" for a second time, and the measure now will be on the state ballot in November.

If approved by voters, the amendment would add 15 words to the New York Constitution: "Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment."

According to Kate Kurera, deputy director of the Environmental Advocates of New York, the amendment makes protecting the environment a fundamental responsibility of state government.

"It is a paradigm shift in thinking about how we regulate the environment," said Kurera, "taking it from a precautionary principle - because this says your right to breathe clean air or drink clean water cannot be infringed upon."

Opponents of the amendment say more environmental regulations aren't needed, and predict it could lead to a flood of lawsuits claiming environmental rights have been violated.

But Kurera pointed out that similar state constitutional amendments in Pennsylvania and Montana haven't opened the litigation floodgates. She said she thinks it would strengthen the ability to enforce laws and regulations already on the books.

"You'll have your same challenges to environmental projects that you always have, and you'll have a new tool," said Kurera. "And hopefully, that tool will provide justice where it actually is needed. You have people in Hoosick Falls who still don't have clean water."

She added the courts would help define and clarify the scope and impact of the amendment if it became a subject of litigation.

Kurera noted the amendment had bipartisan support when it passed both houses of the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions. And she said she feels confident voters will approve the measure when it goes on the ballot in November.

"I think the majority of people when they're faced with that question, 'do you think you deserve the right to clean air, clean water and live in a healthy environment,' I would be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker, regardless of their political status, to say 'no,'" said Kurera.

More than 70 organizations had signed a letter to legislators supporting passage of the Environmental Bill of Rights.


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