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    How the PA Constitution Protects Our Environment

    In 1969, Franklin Kury decided to make a change after reading the New York Times and learning that coal companies were able to pollute freshwater sources without penalty. He thought it was important to protect the environment through legislation.

    In May 1971, the Environmental Rights Amendment passed 4 to 1. Article I section 27 of the PA constitution reads:

    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.

    Also during this time was an  “environmental revolution” domino effect through 1972, passing legislation for clean streams and other distinguishments.

    Franklin Kury PA Environmental RIghts Amendment
    Franklin Kury

    On Thursday evening, PennFuture invited Kury and other experts to discuss this amendment, the legal implications, and impact of future of PA legislation due to this amendment. (You can watch the full Facebook Live vid here).

    What this Amendment Does

    The environmental amendment protects current and future PA residents, providing a right to clean air, water, and natural resources. John Dernbach, Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability of Widener University, explained the amendment’s recent history.

    However, this doesn’t mean the environment always wins. How can the PA government protect the environment but yet also allow development? Courts often apply the “Payne test,” which looks at three questions:

    1. Was there compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations relevant to the protection of the Commonwealth’s public natural resources?
    2. Does the record demonstrate a reasonable effort to reduce the environmental incursion to a minimum?
    3. Does the environmental harm, which will result from the challenged decision or action, so clearly outweigh the benefits to be derived therefrom that to proceed further would be an abuse of discretion?

    As Joanne Kilgour, Executive Director of PA Sierra Club said, “An opportunity we have on behalf of all Pennsylvanians is an obligation to create a condition to provide these rights towards ALL Pennsylvanians including future Pennsylvanians.

    So how does this amendment play into current events, including the natural gas boom in PA?

    In some cases, the Environmental Amendment can protect against the oil and gas industry in court cases. The recent Robinson Township case sided with residents instead of industry.

    In other ways, the industry still wins big in PA. In recent years, Pennsylvania expanded natural gas drilling on state lands to help balance the budget. But how does the natural gas industry have such a significant influence in PA, considering we have an environmental amendment?

    The current State of PA Politics: Fracking Industry Vs. Environment

    PA is the only US fracking state that doesn’t have a severance tax on the natural gas industry, instead of trying to increase taxes on utility customers.

    Follow the money for a few more clues. Over the past 10 years, the Marcellus Shale industry has spent over 65 million dollars lobbying Pennsylvania Legislators alone. There are 203 registered lobbyists for the Natural Gas industry in PA, which is one lobbyist for every PA house of representative legislator, total 203).

    Just last week, the PA house voted to take $380 million allocated to environmental purposes to general funds, which means that the funds can go to anything in the budget. This budget also includes a 40% cut to SEPTA, which would be detrimental to our mass transit.

    Sounds fishy? As PA State Rep LeAnne Krueger-Braneky said on Thursday,“A lot of what we see in the legislature these days is unconstitutional.”

    What to Do Moving Forward

    Along with encouraging the audience to vote in every election (especially those for PA representatives), PennFuture’s panels emphasized trying to understand other people’s political views and trying to compromise to move forward with environmental missions.

    Aside from suing the government for not protecting them against climate change like these Oregon kids did, the forum lacked suggestions around driving clean energy initiatives forward in PA. With a Republican-controlled legislator, it might seem far off. However, local municipality Phoenixville just declared converting to clean energy by 2035.

    A few simple ways to get started:

    1. Pay attention to what’s going on in Harrisburg! We all (myself guilty) get super caught up in Philly and US politics, but much of what happens to our state starts in the Capitol.
    2. Call your local representatives. Find out who they are and add them to your speed dial after your mom and before your BFF.
    3. Register to vote if you’re not currently.
    4. Vote on October 7th.
    5. Work on an issue that matters to you. Or if you can’t, support a local organization – PennFuture, PennEnvironment, Clean Air COuncil, Sierra Club and Clean Water Action are all local organizations working towards PA environmental issues.

    Here are a few more suggestions for those really pumped up.

    As President & CEO of PennFuture Larry Schweiger asked,

    “Franklin Kury created an environmental amendment for all of us, but it’s up to us if we want to keep it.”

    Julie Hancher

    About Julie Hancher

    Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake.

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