TRENTON — Environmental groups and like-minded lawmakers say one of their goals for 2018 is a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to clean air and water in New Jersey.

Maya van Rossum, of Delaware Riverkeeper, said only Montana and Pennsylvania include a clean environment in their state constitutions’ bill of rights. Florida, Maryland and New York are considering versions that wouldn’t be as strong as what’s proposed in Trenton.

“If this constitutional amendment is passed, it will give the rights to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment the highest level of protection you get under New Jersey law,” van Rossum said.

Dave Pringle, of Clean Water Action, says you’d think people would have the right to clean air and water in New Jersey, but we don’t. He says the change would help prevent some development.

“This gives government the stronger leg to stand on,” Pringle said. “And it also gives, when government fails to stand on that leg, it gives citizens the opportunity to force them to.”

Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen, is sponsoring the proposal. He said the difference from current law as it relates to development is that environmental protection would actually have teeth.

“We already have agencies charged with doing these tests, so it’s a matter of making them doing what they’re actually supposed to be doing,” Eustace said.

“In the first place, the state would have to do an investigation to make sure that sensitive areas are not being affected. And the second piece is people have the right to object and litigate,” he said.

The proposal would require the state to consider the effect of any proposed action on pure water, clean air and ecologically healthy habitats and broaden the types of lawsuits that citizens may bring in fighting development projects.

Van Rossum said similar constitutional provisions haven’t led to rampant lawsuits in Montana or Pennsylvania.

“It is not something where every time somebody spits into the water you’re going to have litigation,” she said. “That’s just not the experience. It’s just not the reality.”

The proposal hasn’t yet had a hearing. Environmentalists said they started talking about it with legislators in late November and early December, around the time Eustace introduced it.

The bill proposes to ask voters on a November ballot: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to grant every person the right to a clean and healthy environment? The amendment would also require the state to protect public natural resources.”

The language it would add to Article I of the constitution reads: “Every person has a right to a clean and healthy environment, including pure water, clean air, and ecologically healthy habitats, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of the environment.  The state shall not infringe upon these rights, by action or inaction.”

It goes on to say: “The state’s public natural resources, among them its waters, air, flora, fauna, climate, and public lands, are the common property of all the people, including both present and future generations.  The state shall serve as trustee of these resources, and shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all people.”

The state constitution’s bill of rights contains freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion and private property rights and from unreasonable searches and seizures in New Jersey’s bill of rights. That section also includes the minimum wage amendment voters approved in 2013.

“Under the constitution, we have four freedoms. But we need this as a fifth freedom – the freedom to be healthy in a healthy environment,” said Jamie Zaccaria, legislative and communications coordinator for the Sierra Club. “Because after all, you can’t have free speech if you can’t breathe the air.”

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