Cemented in the United States Constitution are the three famous, inalienable human rights: freedom of speech, religion and assembly. In modern day, they seem as natural as the right to breathe, but what about the right to breathe clean air?
Although clean air, land and water seem like natural rights, given how essential they are for human life, ironically, they’re not given the same status and protection as freedom of speech or religion. This is the issue environmentalist and lawyer Maya K. van Rossum points out in her book, “The Green Amendment,” and is addressed in what is known as the Green Amendment, a constitutional recognition and protection of the environment.
Currently, only two states in the country have a Green Amendment as part of their state constitution: Montana and Pennsylvania. For The Generations is the working force behind the Green Amendment; the group advocates for the new amendment at the state level and, eventually, the federal level in order to safeguard the environment.
When it comes to legislative environmental protections, they are oftentimes more accommodating to polluters or just overlooked, meaning a higher power is often needed to prevent environmental degradation.
In 2018, three environmental-protection groups found that while three oil and gas industries were directed to pay $8.55 million and invest almost $100 million to prevent or reduce leaking during their operation, three other companies — the Devon, Chesapeake and Gulport Energy Corporations — were excluded, though they posed just as much risk.
Such industries also target colored, immigrant and low-income communities, with hydraulic-fracturing wells, a natural-gas extraction method also known as fracking, more likely to be found in those neighborhoods. Several studies show that these communities are subjected to higher rates of pollution, specifically particulate matter, a known carcinogen and contributor to lung diseases and heart attacks.
According to The Atlantic, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found in a 2018 study that “results at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.” The disproportionate risk is known as environmental racism.
A solution to the problem of neglect, oversight and discrimination is to push beyond legislation to an ultimate authority: state and federal constitutions.
During the fracking frenzy that gripped Pennsylvania around 2012, the state’s oil and gas law permitted oil and gas development in every zoning area in the state, regardless of zoning rules. Although the region was slowly catching onto issues of water contamination, human health complications, seismic activity and methane gas emissions (a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide), Rossum and the deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network discovered that other areas around the country had already been impacted by fracking. “We discovered the extraction process had already devasted lands and communities in Texas, Michigan and other states early to the shale gas boom,” she writes.
The fracking process uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand, which is pumped through a steel pipe bored into the ground to the shale rock below, building pressure that cracks the rock and releases natural gas. These pipes can leak, the extraction process can be messy and Pennsylvania was feeling the effects.
A 2017 study in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” found that from 2005 to 2014, there were 6,648 surface spills across Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania — all while oil and gas companies had free rein over Pennsylvania.
If it weren’t for Pennsylvania’s Green Amendment, the law passed in favor of oil and gas companies would not have been revised by the Supreme Court in 2013, who ruled that such a law was in violation of Pennsylvania’s Green Amendment, because it guaranteed the people’s right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
According to EcoWatch, in 2016, two families in Dimock, Pennsylvania, were awarded millions of dollars after an investigation and jury found the Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation responsible for contaminating the families’ well water. Most of the 42 other families affected settled outside of court.
In a 2018 lecture at Brookdale Community College, Rossum, a staunch advocate of the Green Amendment, stated that beyond ensuring people’s right to a clean, healthy environment, such an amendment provides clear language and an immediate pathway to court. Furthermore, it resets public perception of the environment and environmental advocates.
Rossum spoke of how she has been spat on, pinched, grabbed and called names because of the environmental work she does, but a Green Amendment would help portray the protection of America and the right to a clean, healthy environment as something patriotic, not irksome.
The human rights solidified in the U.S. Constitution turned global in form of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, which consisted of 30 articles outlining what those rights were. The Heritage Foundation published a report in 2013 stating that “U.N. agencies had produced 27 binding human rights legal instruments pursuant to the UDHR, yielding 667 total provisions requiring states’ compliance.”
With this, these agencies declared human rights to include basic goods, such as food, water, clothing, publicly funded higher education and even protection against climate change.
If the international stage can push environmental protection as a human right, then it would be more than reasonable for the United States to follow suit.