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MD Lawmakers Consider Constitutional Right to Healthy Environment

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Last week, amid the shutdown and paralysis of the federal government, the Maryland General Assembly took action and opened its 2019 legislative session.

Sound of gavel and voice: “I now call the Maryland Senate to order.”

The most sweeping environmental legislation being debated this year is a proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would add to the state's Declaration of Rights the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. 

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, field director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, is helping to lead the campaign for a constitutional amendment.

“The idea is to have this as a fundamental right, putting it on par with all of the other rights that we have – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press,” Cardin said. “And as such, it would be sort of written into the DNA of how we construct our society.”

Such a constitutional change, for a right to a green and healthy environment, would require the approval of not only three fifths of state lawmakers, but also a majority of Maryland voters in the next election.

That would be a tall order, but there is historical precedent for environmental rights bills.  In 1971, Pennsylvania amended its state constitution to add an amendment that reads, in part: “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.”

That “Environmental Rights Amendment” proved pivotal in a recent court decision that gave residents of western Pennsylvania the right to pass zoning laws restricting or banning hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

“One of the other things that this amendment would do is to state clearly that all of the natural resources of the state belong to the people of Maryland," Rabbi Cardin added. "And that the state and all levels of government are the trustees, responsible for protecting the natural resources of Maryland.”

Another major bill being debated in the state General Assembly is a bill that would require power companies in Maryland to buy half of their electricity from solar, wind or other renewable sources by 2030. That’s double the current requirement of 25 percent by 2020.

“There are some issues where inaction at the federal level spurs action at the state level,” said state Senator Brian Feldman, a Democrat from Montgomery County and co-sponsor of the bill. “And the more states that get into this area and pass legislation, the more pressure it puts on our federal Congress.”

Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a similar but less ambitious bill in 2016 because it slightly raised rates for electricity consumers. Lawmakers overrode his veto and passed the 25 percent requirement last year.

Another bill being championed this year by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters would ban Styrofoam cups and food packaging statewide.

Proposed legislation would outlaw an insecticide called chlorpyrifos, which is sprayed on fruit trees in Maryland and elsewhere to kill pests -- but has been linked to brain damage in children. Last year, a proposed state ban on chlorpyrifos fell short after farmers argued they needed the chemical to battle an invasive species called the spotted lanternfly.

Karla Raettig, Executive Director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, argues that there are safer alternative pesticides. She said Maryland needs to ban chlorpyrifos because the federal government has failed to take action.

“US EPA had concluded that it should be banned, and the Trump Administration determined that they weren’t going to do that and rolled it back,” said Raettig.  “And that is exactly why we need to have the ban here in Maryland.”

This legislation could face a rough road, politically, however, because the influential farm lobby opposes most restrictions on pesticides, and successfully fought the chlorpyrifos ban last year.

Audio coming soon. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.