- OPED: New York Needs an Environmental Bill of Rights

The following OPED was published June 13, 2017 in the Poughkeepsie Journal. It was written by Bill Samuels, founder of EffectiveNY, and Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

New York Needs an Environmental Bill of Rights

New Yorkers believe we have a right to clean water, and air that is safe to breathe; that we have a right to turn on the tap and not live in fear that our kids will get sick. That we have a right to open the window for fresh air, and not go to bed concerned about pollutants entering our lungs.

Shockingly, unlike in states like Hawaii and Montana, that right does not exist in New York’s Constitution, or anywhere else in its laws. The legislature can fix this wrong by passing S.5287/A.6279, New York’s Environmental Bill of Rights. This amendment has already been approved by the Assembly with the support of legislators like Didi Barrett and Kevin Cahill. New Yorkers deserve that same commitment from Senators Sue Serino, Terrence Murphy, and George Amedore.

We all take water and air for granted. We assume the force of law will hold polluters accountable and find solutions that protect our health. After all, our government should deliver, at a minimum, the basics of clean water and air.

But this simply isn’t reality. Just consider all of the new and dangerous attacks on our environment and long-cherished protections like the Clean Air and Water Acts that we see coming from Washington, D.C. right now.

Many politicians say, “of course I support clean water, who doesn’t?!” However, when push comes to shove inside the halls of the state Capitol, they vote for the benefit of polluters and to weaken our defenses.

Their actions are quite literally the difference between life and death for many. And New York State must step up

Communities in Crisis

As more and more communities find themselves in crisis-mode, they are also finding that actions being taken by government are lacking. Instead, if government’s response to a crisis was weighed against obligations required by a constitutional Environmental Bill of Rights, we would see better decision-making.

This matters because no matter which corner of the state in which you live, an example of a community in crisis isn’t far:

Hoosick Falls: a village located about 30 miles from the State Capitol where about 3,000 residents drank water for decades contaminated by the likely carcinogen, PFOA. Residents had to take it upon themselves to sound the alarm after strange incidents of cancer began popping up.

Peace Bridge: on the lower east side of Buffalo, one-quarter of all 660 D’Youville Porter School students have asthma – something which also afflicts one-in-three households in the community.

Newburgh: the water supply of the Hudson Valley city of 30,000 was contaminated with the likely carcinogen, PFOS, from a nearby military base.

Ezra Prentice Homes: a study found that in South Albany, approximately 1,000 diesel trucks passed by the Ezra Prentice Homes daily. At the Ezra Prentice Homes “more than half of the residents have asthma.”

The solutions many communities have seen are lacking, to say the least.

In Newburgh, the federal Department of Defense (DOD), for instance, refuses to accept liability for causing the contamination, even as President Trump continues his campaign to levy staggering cuts to environmental protection in order to build up the DOD. In the Bronx and Buffalo, politicians often get press for the “fight” against asthma, even as the Governor and legislators just blocked implementation of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act for a 7th year.

And within the $150-plus billion state budget, neither the governor nor the legislature identified resources to provide Hoosick Falls residents with a new source of drinking water.

Incidentally, this campaign was born from the advocacy of those in crisis.

15-year-old Mikayla Baker, a Hoosick Falls resident sums it up succinctly: “[i]t’s ridiculous that we should even have to ask for the right of clean water and clean air.” Mikayla and many kids were raised on water contaminated with PFOA. Think about that – being 15, and living in fear that the water you drank will someday harm you and your family.

Their stories cannot be ignored. In the coming months and year, as science advances and connects the dots on contamination and the health impacts like cancer clusters, we’re going to see more and more communities in crisis.

New Yorkers have a right within the Constitution to Bingo, but not clean air or water. State Senators have the opportunity to fix this glaring omission to establish a legacy as true champions of our environment and health, and ensure that we, the people, have the tools available to force action to fight for our basic rights.