Photo: Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds citizens' rights to a healthy environment

Protesters call attention to the dangers created by Act 13 and demand justice for the ten families whose water has been contaminated by fracking operations. (Credit: shadbushcollective via Flickr)

By Mark Youden

Based on the Environmental Rights Amendment (Article I, Section 27) in Pennsylvania's state constitution — which guarantees its citizens the "right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment" — on December 19, 2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down parts of the state's pro-drilling Act 13 as unconstitutional.

Sign up for our newsletter

Act 13, a recent revision to Pennsylvania's Oil and Gas Act, effectively allows natural gas companies to drill anywhere and everywhere, regardless of local zoning laws. Citizens and officials in seven municipalities joined forces with a group of NGOs to challenge the Act's constitutionality. The court agreed, saying: " its core, this dispute centers upon an asserted vindication of citizens' rights to quality of life on their properties and in their hometowns, insofar as Act 13 threatens degradation of air and water, and of natural, scenic and esthetic values of the environment, with attendant effects on health, safety and the owners' continued enjoyment of their private property."

The case illustrates how legal recourse empowers individuals and municipalities to fight for their environmental rights and prevent corporate interests from damaging air, water and land or threatening community well-being. It's inspirational for jurisdictions like Canada, where citizens' rights to a healthy environment have yet to be recognized. And it affirms that fundamental constitutional principles hold up against political pressure from wealthy special interests like the fossil-fuel industry.

The ultimate impact of the decision remains to be seen. The State of Pennsylvania maintains that the Supreme Court departed from their historical practice and role by making their own sweeping findings regarding the impact of Act 13; they filed a request for reconsideration, sending the case back to the lower court.

Opponents fear the decision could substantially adversely affect Pennsylvania's economy, because its influence is not limited to the oil and gas sector. But supporters are enthusiastic and confident, maintaining that the Supreme Court properly rooted their decision in the constitutionality of the law.

We northern neighbours will be watching this case closely as we embark on our own journey to ensure every Canadian's right to a healthy environment is legally protected.

Mark Youden is a third-year Common Law student at the University of Ottawa specializing in Environmental Law. Mark is currently completing a student practicum at the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver working on the Right to a Healthy Environment campaign.

January 17, 2014

Read more

Post a comment

1 Comment

Jan 17, 2014
10:20 AM

This is an excellent article. Well written!

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »