A constitutional weapon: environmental rights reimagined in Pennsylvania

April 26, 2018 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PEC in the News

There is no room for big ideas — existential ideas — at a water obstruction permit hearing.

But they come anyway, discussions in search of a forum.

“I’m here as a resident of Planet Earth,” Susan Hoppe, a Pittsburgh-based internist, testified at a recent Department of Environmental Protection hearing on Shell Pipeline Co.’s proposed ethane pipeline.

That’s relevant, she said, because the ethane that will flow through the pipeline will be used to make plastic at Shell’s petrochemical complex in Potter Township. And plastic pollutes the oceans. To supply the pipeline, more fossil fuel will be extracted, and fossil fuels are a major driver of climate change. So that, too, is relevant in this discussion of whether Shell should be granted an earth disturbance and water encroachment permit, she said.

As two DEP officials sat silently for hours over the course of three hearings earlier this month, speaker after speaker urged them to look more broadly at the issue and gave them the cover to do so: Pennsylvania’s environmental rights amendment, Article 1, Section 27.

Gail Murray began her testimony by taping the text of the amendment to the podium.

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

Over the past year, the amendment has been trotted out at local zoning board meetings, in lawsuits, and at regulatory reviews.

John Walliser, senior vice president of legal and government affairs with the nonprofit Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said he has been to DEP advisory committee meetings at which an idea is kicked around, then runs into a regulatory road block and someone says, “Well, you know, you always have Article 1, Section 27.”

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