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Ballot Proposal Two would guarantee NYers right to clean air and water

A photo of Lake George in New York
Jim Levulis

A proposition on this fall’s ballot would give all New Yorkers a constitutional right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Environmental groups say voters should say yes to the measure, while some business leaders in the state say it could have unintended consequences.

Peter Iwanowicz with Environmental Advocates says Proposition Two amends the state’s constitution to give New Yorkers a guaranteed right to clean air and water.

“(It’s) adding 15 simple words to our constitution,” Iwanowicz said.

The proposal would add a clause to Article 1 of the New York Constitution to “establish the right of each person to clean air and water and a healthful environment.”

“Most people when you talk to them, think we already have this right, and as humans, we do,” he said. “But legally, in the eyes of New York state, we don’t.”

Iwanowicz says the state’s constitution already grants the rights to free speech and assembly, even the right to gamble on games of chance like bingo. He urges a ‘yes’ vote, saying it’s a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

“This is something that you can give to yourself,” said Iwanowicz. He also said the amendment, if passed, would not require any further action by state politicians and would become part of the constitution in January.

“Unlike voting for a candidate and then hoping that he or she lives up the promises they make on the campaign trail,” he said. “It’s very empowering.”

The state’s Business Council opposes the measure. Ken Pokalsky, the group’s vice president, says the wording is so broad that it could have unintended consequences.

“We have some simple questions to what seems to be simple language,” Pokalsky said. “First of all, why is it necessary, why is it needed? What gap in New York state law is it intended to fill?”

Pokalsky, who spoke when the measure was approved by the Legislature earlier this year, says the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act already offers adequate protections. It requires the state Department of Environmental Conservation to review proposed projects that could adversely affect air and water quality.

He says the state attorney general also has the power to bring suit against polluters.

Pokalsky warns that the measure could lead to costly frivolous lawsuits against companies that are already doing their best to comply with existing state and federal anti-pollution regulations. He says it potentially could also be used to block clean energy wind and solar projects that many environmental groups support, and that have sometimes become controversial.

“There’s a lot of bills that pass that we have concerns about or disagreements with,” Pokalsky said. “But I think the worst kind of bills or laws are ones that you don’t know what they mean and you don’t know what the effects are going to be. And this constitutional amendment falls squarely in that category.”

Iwanowicz says two other states, Pennsylvania and Montana, have approved constitutional rights to clean air and water. He says there hasn’t been a deluge of lawsuits. He believes the true effect of the measure would be to guide decisions going forward.

“It’s going to change government thinking to be more cautious and more preventative of environmental problems at the outset,” he said. “Rather than fixing and cleaning it up after the fact.”

He says when pollution is discovered, cleanups would happen more quickly, because businesses and governments would not want to risk being sued for violating the constitutional rights of those affected by the contamination.

Proposition Two, like the other four proposals, will be printed on the back of the ballot.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.