Pennsylvania Right To Clean Air and Water

Policy Type Policy
Policy Jurisdiction State — Pennsyvlania
Status Passed
Tags Air Quality, Climate Adaptation and Resilience, Water Equity

Policy Summary

Article 1 Section 27 provides two rights to a clean environment for Pennsylvania’s citizens. One is a right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural scenic historic and aesthetic values of the environment. The other is a right to have public natural resources conserved and maintained by the Commonwealth for the benefit of present and future generations. There are some state constitutions that have one or the other of those rights, but very few have both. It’s a very powerful statement.

Pennsylvania Constitution. Article I, Section 27 says:

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic 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.”

Act 13 of 2012 severely restricted what local governments could do to regulate the oil and gas industry. Robinson Township challenged the law in court. See Robinson Twp. v. Commonwealth, 83 A.3d 901 (2013).

The PA Supreme Court decided the case in 2013, largely in favor of Robinson Township. The decision is 162 pages. Here are some interesting and significant excerpts:

p74: […] laws of the Commonwealth that unreasonably impair the right [of citizens to clean air and pure water, and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment] are unconstitutional.

The corollary of the peoples Section 27 reservation of right to an environment of quality is an obligation on the governments behalf to refrain from unduly infringing upon or violating the right, including by legislative enactment or executive action.

p75: Moreover, as the citizens argue, the constitutional obligation binds all government, state or local, concurrently.

p79: […] economic development cannot take place at the expense of an unreasonable degradation of the environment.

p83: This environmental public trust was created by the people of Pennsylvania, as the common owners of the Commonwealths public natural resources; this concept is consistent with the ratification process of the constitutional amendment delineating the terms of the trust. The Commonwealth is named trustee and, notably, duties and powers attendant to the trust are not vested exclusively in any single branch of Pennsylvania’s government. The plain intent of the provision is to permit the checks and balances of government to operate in their usual fashion for the benefit of the people in order to accomplish the purposes of the trust. This includes local government.

p84: As trustee, the Commonwealth has a duty to refrain from permitting or encouraging the degradation, diminution, or depletion of public natural resources, whether such degradation, diminution, or depletion would occur through direct state action or indirectly, e.g., because of the states failure to restrain the actions of private parties.

p88: The Environmental Rights Amendment offers protection equally against actions with immediate severe impact on public natural resources and against actions with minimal or insignificant present consequences that are actually or likely to have significant or irreversible effects in the short or long term.

p95: public trustee duties were delegated concomitantly to all branches and levels of government in recognition that the quality of the environment is a task with both local and statewide implications, and to ensure that all government neither infringed upon the peoples rights nor failed to act for the benefit of the people in this area crucial to the well-being of all Pennsylvanians

p115: […] the constitutional provision speaks on behalf of the people, to the people directly, rather than through the filter of the peoples elected representatives to the General Assembly. See PA. CONST. art. I, 25, 27.

Policy summary courtesy of: State Impact Pennsylvania and EJnet.org: Web Resources for Environmental Justice Activists

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