A Green Amendment: Could We Ever Have One?

By Cindy Ellis

Two Words

Climate Change.  When WV Delegate Evan Hansen spoke to us at our Fall Review, he pointed out that he was the first to publicly use that two- word phrase on the floor of our legislature’s house chambers.  Then he continued by mentioning two more provocative words.  Green Amendment.

Delegate Hansen reminded us that Pennsylvania, despite a record of pollution to rival that of West Virginia, has a decades-old provision to protect a healthy environment and that, in recent years, court cases have reaffirmed those protections. 

Here is the amendment:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.  Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.  As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”  

A reporter for the Bay Journal [focusing on Chesapeake Bay] summed up the recent action.   Donna Morelli said, 

“Until lately, those high-sounding words have been just that, without any real impact on what happens in the state. But twice in the last four years, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has rendered decisions putting teeth in the environmental rights amendment — first, in a lawsuit over whether communities have the power to bar hydraulic fracturing and, later, over how the legislature is spending revenue derived from leasing state forestland for “fracking,” as the controversial natural gas extraction method is known.” 

Could that ever happen in West Virginia?

There’s another example.  Even the extractive state of Montana has a similar provision in its constitution and there the Blackfoot River was safeguarded by the same kinds of appeals.

Ensuring those provisions and mounting those court cases would be challenging.

Much of the push for the act in Pennsylvania came from the Delaware Riverkeepers headquartered in Bristol.  Its leader, Maya van Rossum, has written a book, “The Green Amendment: Securing our Right to a Healthy Environment”.    In it, she outlines the history of the efforts to pursue the security offered by formal amendments, along with a multitude of examples of damaged communities and landscapes, some in West Virginia.

She says, “…pollution and environmental destruction are not illegal in this country.  People are free to pollute, damage, and desecrate the environment so long as they obtain government permits or licenses to do so…” and “…Sadly, government-issued licenses to pollute are rarely denied…”.

We have certainly seen that happen in the Mountain State.  

And we want change.

So, we could be heartened by our delegate’s audaciousness in introducing new words. 

And we can watch the legislature in the New Year to see if any others join in his boldness, and join us in efforts to “conserve and maintain” our rights.