By Gwendolyn Craig
A proposed amendment to the state constitution to guarantee clean air and water is making its way through the New York State Legislature, though not all Adirondack lawmakers support it.
Several Republican lawmakers suggested the change could open the floodgates to lawsuits. Democratic lawmakers said other states that have passed similar language did not see any uptick in litigation.
The proposed bill would add to the state bill of rights, giving citizens the “right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” On Tuesday the bill passed the state Senate and the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee. It will now go to the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
The full Assembly will have to vote on the amendment for the constitutional change. Then it would appear before voters on a November ballot. Lawmakers representing the Adirondacks raised issues with the quest.
Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Sen. Jim Tedisco, R,C-Glenville, voted against the bill on Tuesday and Assemblyman Matthew Simpson, R-Horicon, talked about his concerns with the change. Simpson, however, did not vote against the amendment during an Environmental Conservation Committee meeting on Tuesday.
Stec said he was not against the goal of having clean air and water, but after noting that the bill did not include the definition of “clean,” he said the Legislature needs “to be very cautious and careful with our language.”
“In the face of ambiguity you will have distrust, lawsuits and costs,” Stec said. “We’re throwing something out there that we have not well defined.”
In an emailed statement to the Adirondack Explorer, Tedisco said the amendment “sounds nice” and he supports the concepts, “especially in our precious Adirondack Park, but this bill is just a wish list with no real environmental protections and definitions. That’s problematic from an implementation and enforcement standpoint as it will potentially create a false sense of security for New Yorkers as the state will not be able to guarantee this without clear definitions of what these terms mean so all parties impacted can understand their roles and responsibilities.”
Other Republican colleagues worried that the amendment would encourage more lawsuits, too, something that worried Simpson. During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Simpson said the Adirondacks have numerous antiquated wastewater treatment systems “affecting the water quality of people downstream.”
“I’m just concerned about this language, creating an opportunity for somebody to really make a case that, ‘I’m entitled to clean water and I’m affected by a faulty municipal system’ in a community that’s trying to deal with this and there isn’t any answers,” Simpson said. He pointed to the crippling costs local governments could face. “The financial impact of this, the state needs to recognize.”
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Simpson added that Lake George has a number of septic systems that need upgrades. Some Adirondack local governments are under state consent orders to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems, but have a small taxpayer base to lean on for that funding.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, is chair of the committee. Englebright said the constitutional amendment could coincide with the passage of a renewed environmental bond act. The Legislature had passed a $3 billion environmental bond act last year, but Cuomo pulled it from a public referendum, citing the $15 billion budget deficit and the coronavirus pandemic. But Englebright believes the bond act could be renewed this year.
The bond act, he continued, could help fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades.
“The ability to put financing together for communities that have a demographic profile such as yours, that’s a challenge,” Englebright said to Simpson. “I can only tell you I am sensitive to it. I think that this (constitutional amendment) will help.”
The change to the constitution, other Democratic lawmakers said, would be less about paving the way for private lawsuits against industry and more about guiding public policy.
The nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club earned a mention during the Senate’s session as an important sponsor to the bill. Michael Barrett, the club’s executive director, thanked the Senate for taking the lead in the bill’s passage.
“The Green Amendment ensures that environmental impacts will be considered early in the process of government decision-making when prevention of pollution, degradation, and harm is most possible,” Barrett said in an email.
Other groups that were part of lobbying for the bill included Environmental Advocates NY, Delaware Riverkeeper and Green Amendments for the Generations.
Sen. Robert Jackson, D, WF-Manhattan, lauded the environmental justice the addition would make.
“We will finally have safeguards for government to consider the environment and relationship to Mother Earth in the decision-making process,” Jackson said on the Senate floor. “This should not be a political agenda on anyone’s part. It should be for the betterment of all the people of New York State.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name Environmental Advocates NY.