Our opinion: Keeping a natural lifeline pure

Breathe easy. The state constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment is not a gratuitous statement. Rather, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has found, the amendment is an invaluable and enforceable provision that empowers the state government to protect all Pennsylvanians’ right to clean air, water and more.

The amendment 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.”

That intentionally is a broad mandate, so it makes sense that Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations protecting the environment also must be broad.

One such regulation, adopted in 2016, requires drillers and the DEP to consider “the impact of a well permit on public resources including parks, forests, game lands, scenic rivers, natural landmarks, habitats of rare and endangered species … and other critical communities, historical and archaeological sites and drinking water sources.”

An industry trade association, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, quickly filed a lawsuit arguing that, despite the constitutional mandate to protect the environment, the DEP did not have authority under a specific law to implement the regulations.

The Commonwealth Court ruled partially in favor of the drillers in 2019, leading to the state government’s appeal that the Supreme Court ruled on April 19.

“Unadulterated outdoor recreation space is a basic component of quality of life and encompassed in the broadly defined values of the environment protected by the … Environmental Rights Amendment. … An unconventional gas well near spaces used by the public for recreational purposes could threaten the ambient air quality and cause significant noise pollution,” the justices ruled.

They also found that “public resources” need not be publicly owned, citing as an example the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece Fallingwater in Fayette County.

With the administration’s regulatory authority affirmed, Gov. Josh Shapiro should implement recommendations by a state grand jury that he empaneled as attorney general in 2018. It found in 2020 that the state government systemically had failed to oversee the drilling industry in the public interest, and recommended mandatory disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, expanded drilling buffer zones in sensitive areas, comprehensive public health assessments near drilling sites, and more.

That would ensure that environmental quality remains a right rather than a luxury.


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