A constitutional amendment guaranteeing New Jerseyans the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to common ownership of natural resources, could be in front of voters soon.
Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, Passaic, chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, planned to introduce a bill Thursday to put such an amendment on the ballot.
“I have long fought for and believe in the right to clean air and water. If we do not have these two basic necessities, nothing else matters. It is our most basic need. I look forward to making clean water and air a constitutional right in the Garden State,” Eustace said in a written statement after a press conference Thursday afternoon in Trenton.
The effort is being led by the Delaware Riverkeepers, with assistance from Clean Water Action, Environment New Jersey and the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The bill is modeled in part after Pennsylvania’s environmental rights amendment, said Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum. The Pennsylvania amendment was successfully used in a lawsuit in 2013, she said.
“After that big legal victory, we were alerted to the importance of having constitutional provisions in the Bill of Rights (section) protecting people’s right to a healthy environment,” van Rossum said.
She said if the constitutional amendment passes it will fundamentally change how decisions are made in the state.
“New Jersey’s provision makes it very clear, every government official, at every level, has to honor and protect people’s environmental rights,” she said. “When engaged in decision making, like passing a law or issuing a permit, (state workers) have to think not only, ‘Am I complying with the law?’ but must go a step further and ask, ‘Am I protecting people’s environmental rights?’”
Last month, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment dedicating all money from environmental damage cases be used to “repair, restore, replace, or preserve the State’s natural resources.”
To amend the constitution is a two-step process, said David Pringle, legislative director of Clean Water Action. First, the Assembly and Senate have to pass identical resolutions authorizing the electorate to vote.
It must either pass both houses with at least a three-fifths vote once, or by a simple majority in two consecutive years.
“Then, obviously, you need to win the public referendum,” Pringle said.
He said the groups’ goal is get legislation passed in 2018. If the bill is passed by August, it would go on the November 2018 ballot. If passed in 2018 after August, it would go on the November 2019 ballot, he said.
Van Rossum said Montana is the only other state that has language about a right to a healthy environment as strong as Pennsylvania’s in its constitution, and 33 other states “talk about the environment but not in a legally meaningful way” in their constitutions.
Fifteen states, including New Jersey and Delaware — two other states bordering the Delaware River — have nothing about the environment in their constitutions, she said. Her group is also working to get such a provision added to the Delaware constitution.
The other state the Delaware River flows by is New York, which has language in its constitution but not in its bill of rights, she said. A bill has been introduced and passed the Assembly in New York to add a green amendment to its bill of rights, she said.
Van Rossum’s book, “The Green Amendment: Securing the People’s Right to a Clean Environment,” was recently published by Disruption Books.