Op-Ed: Should clean air and water be added to the New York State Bill of Rights?

The following op-ed was published in the Adirondack Almanack on March 21, 2021 and was written by Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of EANY. 

The question: Should clean air and water be added to the New York State Bill of Rights?”

YES by Peter Iwanowicz

Every New Yorker, no matter the color of their skin, or how much money they have, or where they live, has the right to clean air, clean water, and an environment that is healthy. That’s about as noncontroversial as a statement gets nowadays. After all, we all share a basic need to drink water and breathe air; doing so shouldn’t make us sick or cut our lives short because they are dirty with chemicals. But today, that statement is just words. It lacks any real force. Because today, New Yorkers don’t have a right to clean air or clean water. But we’re on track to change that.

While there are federal and state environmental laws already on the books that deal with things like pollution, contamination and conservation, none of them protect the fundamental idea that clean air, clean water and a healthful environment are inalienable rights, meaning that they cannot be taken away. The best way to ensure that is through the New York State Constitution.

Our state constitution expresses and ensures some of our most cherished civil liberties like the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of peaceful assembly. And there is a way to add to that list. Now that the Legislature has given the amendment final go-ahead, people voting this fall will have the opportunity to add 15 words to the Bill of Rights section of the state constitution. “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” By voting “yes” on this environmental right, we will send a message about our collective values and elevate the right to clean air, clean water and a healthful environment to stand amongst our highest ideals.

But clean air and clean water are, of course, more than values. Clean air and clean water (or the lack of them) are often a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, we only need to take a look around to see the outcomes if water and air aren’t clean. Air pollution is a killer. More than 6,000 New Yorkers die prematurely each year because of unhealthful levels of air pollution. Numerous communities across the state are struggling today with drinking water contaminated with cancer causing chemicals. And there is the scourge of acid rain in the Adirondacks, a dirty air/dirty water twofer.

With the stakes so high, an environmental right has to be more than just symbolic. And it is. Adding these rights to the state constitution will have a real impact on people’s lives. Its inclusion will provide the highest legal protection available under the law. It will empower people to press government to consider the implications to the environment, and ultimately our health, before decisions are made.

As the measure heads to the ballot, we’ll hear critics say “we support clean air and water,” but with their next breath they will try and convince us why we don’t need that right. They’ll tell you it’s “duplicative” even as thousands die early from breathing dirty air. They will tell you we will be overrun with lawsuits even though that hasn’t been the case in other states that have environmental rights. And finally, they will say that if we establish a right to clean air and clean water, all businesses will shut down, economic development will grind to a halt and we will face “uncertainty.” But behind the scare tactics is the simple truth—the only ones with any reason to oppose a right to clean air and water are those who make money poisoning our water and air.

Clean water, clean air and a healthy environment are as fundamental to our lives as free speech or freedom of religion. So, this fall, if you value your health and believe your family deserves to drink clean water and breathe clean air, join with millions of like-minded New Yorkers and vote “yes” for clean air and water.