The natural beauty of Maine is breathtaking, stretching from salt marshes to forests to rivers to one’s own backyard. And in addition to its beauty and sanctity, Mainers depend on a clean and healthy environment to support quality of life, recreation, economic vitality, property values, and the health and safety of Maine communities. But did you know that in Maine, and in 47 other states across the nation, you do not have a constitutional right to a healthy environment?

While the Maine constitution guarantees the rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and even freedom to bear arms, environmental rights are neither recognized nor protected. Vulnerable communities, including the elderly, Indigenous, and people of color, continue to be seriously and disproportionately harmed by pollution and environmental degradation, despite Maine’s well-developed system of environmental laws that have provided important protections to water, air and natural landscapes.

A change is needed, and one is advancing. The proposed Pine Tree Amendment, L.D. 489, would enshrine environmental rights in the Maine constitution for both present and future generations to come.  With this constitutional proposal, Maine is on the leading edge of a national movement seeking to raise up environmental rights in state constitutions across the nation.

The proposed amendment states, “the people of the State have the right to a clean and healthy environment and to the preservation of the natural, cultural and healthful qualities of the environment. The /state may not infringe upon these rights. The State shall conserve, protect and maintain the State’s natural resources, including, but not limited to, its air, water, land and ecosystems for the benefit of all the people, including generations yet to come.”

Constitutionally protecting environmental rights will drive better government decision-making at all levels of government and will prevent situations in which land becomes too contaminated, water becomes too polluted, and air too dirty to support healthy lives, including a healthy economy. Constitutional protection can also help drive critical change for helping the state do its part to address the climate crisis.

The Pine Tree Amendment will refocus governmental action so it is focused first on preventing environmental pollution and degradation, rather than focusing first on permitting environmental harm. The amendment will raise environmental justice to a constitutional mandate, requiring the environmental rights of all people to be protected equitably regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

With the Pine Tree Amendment, no longer will property rights, industry profit goals, or political deal-making that offers up environmental degradation in exchange for promises, favors or donations, be allowed to stand unchallenged.

And when there is a gap in the law, the constitution can serve as a backstop of protection until the government catches up. For example, if a Pine Tree Amendment passed years ago, it could have been the tool necessary to avoid PFAS contamination that is harming Maine farmers and contaminating peoples’ drinking water.

Constitutional environmental rights protection will strengthen economic development and job creation by encouraging sustainable industry and businesses that protect our water, air and environments — not only enhancing economic development but avoiding the economic, health and safety costs that result from environmental pollution and degradation.

Environmental rights are inalienable human rights, worthy of Bill of Rights protection in the Maine constitution.

Maya K. van Rossum is an attorney, leader of the organization Green Amendments For The Generations, and author of “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.” 


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