It’s been a year since New York State adopted an “Environmental Rights Amendment” into the state constitution. Established as Article I, Section 19 in the State Constitution’s Bill of Rights on January 1, 2022, the amendment guarantees that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” Notably, 70% of New Yorkers voted in support of this amendment in the November 2021 general election ballot. This electoral landslide brought together a broad coalition of voters across age, race, gender, and class. The amendment also accrued widespread endorsements from various environmental, labor, women’s rights, racial justice, and public health groups, showcasing its broad reach and the public’s clear demand for this fundamental right.
Community organizations have voiced that the environmental right is a “powerful and important tool for combating environmental racism and rebalancing the inequities communities of color and low-income communities have faced.” Indeed, the environmental right can provide a strong foundation for new protective and justice-oriented environmental standards. It will also help ensure that state agencies, municipalities, and other government entities are held accountable in new ways to ensure clean water and air and a healthful environment for all communities. This includes redressing past environmental harms, filling current legal gaps or loopholes in environmental regulations, and addressing the disproportionate and cumulative impacts that environmentally overburdened communities face.
We believe that communities throughout the state will play an instrumental role in ensuring the right is faithfully implemented by courts and regulators. That is why, in the year since the amendment’s adoption, Earthjustice has continued to work with partners to raise awareness about this new environmental right and locate the best avenues for community engagement. In the fall of 2022, Earthjustice co-hosted an educational webinar with a panel of community advocates, lawyers, and professors to answer public questions on how the Environmental Right can address community needs and advance environmental justice. Following this webinar, we worked with our partners Environmental Advocates NY, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the Center for Urban Environmental Reform, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PACE Law School, and Green Amendments for the Generations to create a resource guide about the environmental right. The guide includes educational, community, and legal resources, such as an FAQ and a public comments template, aimed at making the amendment more accessible for the public. Individuals can use the comments template for example, to guide personalized comments on how a particular administrative decision—like the issuance of a permit—might affect one’s environmental rights under the state constitution.
We strongly encourage New Yorkers to speak up about this new environmental right, especially in these early moments of the environmental right’s application in New York State. Courts and administrative agencies do not operate in a vacuum. Your voice as an advocate can lift up the environmental right at a protest, on a phone call to your representative, in public comments, in an op-ed, or a social media post to help educate decision-makers, and demand that the environmental right’s promises come to fruition for all New Yorkers.
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