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Environmental Rights Amendment Forum Sparks Timely Conversation

Nearly 200 citizens gathered on Sept. 14 at WHYY Studios in Philadelphia for PennFuture’s “Environmental Rights Amendment Forum.” Attendees heard from legal experts, legislators, and current and former state officials who shared their perspectives on Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, an often-misunderstood provision commonly referred to as the “Environmental Rights Amendment.” 

Article I, Section 27 states: “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. 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 course of the evening, Forum panelists stimulated thoughtful dialogue about what’s at stake for Pennsylvania’s citizens and illuminated for a general public audience what had been, for many that attended, an obscure legal issue. Forum panelists reflected on the historical context in which the Amendment emerged, explained relevant case law, discussed needed enforcement, and considered the future implications of the Amendment for Pennsylvania’s citizens and environment. 

The evening began with Franklin Kury, the former state legislator who conceived the Amendment in 1969 and helped shepherd it through enactment in 1971. Noting that the Amendment was a bi-partisan response to the environmental degradation scarring Pennsylvania as a result of unregulated industry, Kury expressed great satisfaction that, 46 years after enactment, the State Supreme Court, in its monumental PEDF decision this summer, finally read the plain language of the Amendment as originally intended, reinvigorating  Article I, Section 27. 

Next, John Dernbach, Professor of Environmental Law and Sustainability at Widener University, walked the audience through the text of the amendment. In a concise yet engaging PowerPoint presentation, Professor Dernbach explained the nuances of each of the Amendment’s three sentences, and how courts have construed them since 1971, culminating in the recent PEDF decision. 

A panel of expert environmental attorneys then discussed the meaning and substance of Amendment case law since 1971, such as Payne v. Kassab, Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, and Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund v. Commonwealth. The panel focused on why PEDF is so significant, explaining that the Court has now said that the state does not own our public natural resources as a proprietor, but instead manages them as would a bank that manages funds in a trust.

Both the history and legal panels provided an ideal segue for a bi-partisan panel of state legislators, who considered the Court’s assertion that the state has an “affirmative obligation” to prohibit the degradation, diminution, and depletion of public natural resources in Pennsylvania. Specifically, they addressed the Court’s assertion that the state must act via the legislature to protect the environment as well as why so many legislators, despite the PEDF decision, remain reluctant to do. 

Finally, John Childe, the attorney in the PEDF case, and John Quigley, former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary, provided thoughtful insights about where we go from here. They asserted that, in the wake of PEDF, a new era of environmental legal victories may be near. To be sure, they, like all of the evening’s panelists, elevated the conversation about a complex topic with a clarity and gravitas too often missing in public discussions about conservation and the environment.

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