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Constitutional rights to clean air and water? Environmental advocates urge voters to say yes

A view of the lighthouse from Erie Basin Marina, October 14, 2021
Michael Mroziak
A view of the lighthouse from Erie Basin Marina, October 14, 2021.

Environmental advocates are urging the public to say yes to Proposition 2 on Election Day. If passed, it would amend the state constitution to include clean air and water among protected rights.

Supporters say passage of the amendment would mean more accountability, more responsibility by those making decisions which could impact the environment, and more power to citizens to sue polluters.

“It would put the right to healthy air, and healthy water, on par with freedom of speech, and freedom of religion and other freedoms that we enjoy. It would set a precedent for environmental policy and actions for a generation to come,” said State Senator Sean Ryan, who carefully noted that as an elected leader he is not allowed to tell voters how to decide, one way or the other, but is allowed to explain what passage of the amendment would mean.

Those who can try to sway voters include environmental activists and community advocates. They include Brian Smith, Associate Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“For instance, will New York State move forward with drinking water standards that protect the drinking water of all New Yorkers from new and emerging contaminants, like the full suite of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic) chemicals, also known as forever chemicals? With a constitutional right to clean water, the choice is obviously yes,” Smith said. “Will New York State allow Bitcoin mining operations to dodge climate loss and repower dirty fossil fuel power plants? With a constitutional right to clean air, the obvious choice is no.”

Community groups backing the amendment include PUSH Buffalo. Tyrell Ford, the organization’s Street Team Manager, explains that clean air and water are a concern to urban communities, including people of color or people with low income.

“I live two blocks away from the 198. My family and I worry about the air quality, trucks coming in and out, all day every day, going to Wegmans, Tops, and Target,” he said. “PUSH Buffalo, we are community driven. And we are focused on the environment every day, especially around clean air and clean water.”

Both politicians and environmental advocates point to decades of history of corporate polluters in Western New York, and credit citizens for taking the action which resulted in change, and cleanup.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, offered the Buffalo River and Tonawanda Coke as examples of pollution which were halted when citizen groups stepped forward. But she says those fights took years, with clean air and water not constitutionally protected.

“All of these citizens and residents took action, but it took decades and millions of dollars to have the resolutions for the environmental harms that they were dealing with,” Jedlicka said. “If we would have had an amendment like the one that's proposed today, that work wouldn't have taken so long, and those fights wouldn't have been so expensive. It shouldn't have to be that way.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.