“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 of 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.”
These are the words of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Former state senator Franklin Cury was the catalyst and author of the amendment. Its intention, in Cury’s own words, was to establish “a legal right to a decent environment under the state constitution” and “effectively change the balance of legal power and give environmental quality (and the human race) at least an even chance in the coming years.”
The devastation our own area had experienced through the unregulated extraction of coal was Cury’s inspiration for the amendment. Lifeless streams, orange with acid mine drainage, abandoned strip mines, mine fires and huge banks of culm deposited throughout the region…just some of the legacy we all still bear from the golden age of coal. How could the coal industry destroy large supplies of water and acres of land without consequence?
Fast forward several decades and now we are asking how the natural gas industry can be permitted to contaminate water supplies, deforest Penn’s Woods, pollute our air and contribute to the greatest calamity of our time…climate change?
In Pennsylvania, over 7,100 active wells exist. Each of these wells require 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies. In just the few years that the industry has been active, over 35.5 billion gallons of Pennsylvania’s fresh water has been combined with more than 284 million gallons of chemicals (including known carcinogens) and pumped into the ground. There are numerous communities where residents can not or will not drink their water because of safety concerns.
During the production and distribution of natural gas, our air quality is also threatened through intentional and unintentional releases of methane. Methane has a 20 times more powerful impact on our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. For this reason, gas drilling not only depletes our ozone layer but also exacerbates climate change.
We have been afforded the constitutional right to clean air and water, yet communities in Pennsylvania are finding these very basic necessities of life threatened. Our constitution protects our public natural resources, yet nearly half of our state parks and forests are leased for drilling. The purity and aesthetics of our environment are safeguarded through this amendment yet, thousands of miles of pipelines traverse the state just beneath our forests, farms, rivers and communities.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) has filed a lawsuit in an effort to defend our state parks and forests, ensure the proper investment of Oil & Gas Lease Funds (OGLF) and fortify our environmental amendment.
Governor Wolf’s moratorium on any additional drilling in our state forests is a welcome policy change; if Corbett would have had his way, additional state lands would have been opened up for drilling in an attempt to satisfy budget shortfalls last year. Thankfully, PEDF’s lawsuit halted Corbett’s plans.
The lower courts have ruled against PEDF’s argument regarding OLGF but has reaffirmed the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources is ultimately responsible for the stewardship of our state parks and forests.
Our state constitution ensures the protection of our most basic rights–to breathe clean air and drink clean water. An individual’s constitutional right should trump corporate profits and should be upheld and protected, even if doing so is not the easiest path or even the most popular.
When does a constitutional right become a guaranteed freedom? When will our communities be free from water and air pollution? When will our state parks and forests be free of industrial infrastructure that threaten their pristine nature? When will our Commonwealth serve as a true trustee to our natural resources, safeguarding them for future generations?
It is up to us to ensure that these rights are taken seriously by our elected officials. Let’s stand together and tell our legislators and the governor that they must ensure the protection of these basic rights, our basic necessities.