Bill to give Mainers right to healthy environment fails in House

Anne E. “Andy” Burt holds signs with other supporters of the Pine Tree Amendment during a legislative session at the Maine State House in Augusta last month. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A proposal to give Maine citizens a constitutional right to a healthy environment failed to clear the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The proposed Pine Tree Amendment drew opposition from Republicans, who expressed support for clean air and water, but worried about what impact the proposed constitutional amendment could have on road and other infrastructure projects.

“The unintended consequences of this would be huge,” Rep. Michael Perkins, R-Oakland, said. “We can’t do this.”

One Republican, Rep. Will Tuell from East Machias, also worried that it could be used to protect right whales and hurt lobstermen.

But supporters like Rep. Margaret O’Neil, D-Saco, described a healthy environment as “essential to all else,” including other constitutional rights.

“Anyone in Maine would recognize that without a healthy environment, without clean air, clean water and stable ecosystems, we’d have trouble enjoying any other rights or freedoms,” O’Neil said. “Before I can engage in dissenting speech to protect my home from unreasonable searches and seizures, I need to have clean air to breathe.”

The House voted 77-59 in support of the proposal – well short of the two-thirds vote needed to send it to voters this fall. The Senate has yet to vote on whether to enact it. If two-thirds of the senators vote in favor, the proposal would still be alive and come back to the House for another try. If not, it dies.

Constitutional amendments require the support of two-thirds of lawmakers and then must be approved by voters statewide.

The proposal was sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, and would add language to the state constitution making environmental protection a core responsibility of state government.

“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 proposed amendment says. “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.”

Critics of the proposal worried that the amendment was too broad and would result in unnecessary litigation, essentially shifting decision-making authority to the courts.

Similar concerns were raised last fall about a constitutional amendment granting residents a right to food. But that proposal cleared the Legislature and was overwhelmingly approved by voters, making Maine the first state to enshrine such a right in its state constitution.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection opposed the original version of the Pine Tree Amendment, but would not comment on the final language. The Maine Department of Transportation, however, opposed it over concerns it could be used to block road, bridge, bike path and other infrastructure projects.

The amendment also was opposed by the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. William Pluecker, I-Warren, supported the amendment, saying concerns about unintended consequences were unfounded.

SIMILAR AMENDMENTS IN OTHER STATES

Similar constitutional amendments have been on the books in Montana and Pennsylvania for about 50 years. New York added a similar amendment last fall, while other states are considering enshrining the right to a healthy environment.

Pluecker said the constitutional amendment could help people affected by so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS. The chemicals were prevalent in sludge that was routinely spread on farmlands at the state’s urging before the adverse environmental and health impacts were known.

“This amendment will drastically empower our citizens as they struggle with PFAS poisoning on our lands and waters,” Pluecker said. “It will help protect our citizens when their rights are denied by this government. Our state campaigned to spread contaminated sludge from urban centers on our precious agricultural soils for years.”

Rep. Jeffrey Hanley, R-Pittston, said the amendment wasn’t needed, because lawmakers have shown a willingness to strengthen environmental protections over the years. He pointed to the Legislature’s recent and unanimous approval of a bill to increase water quality standards in rivers and streams.

“These things happen because legislation happens, because we see a problem and we solve it on the federal level and the state level,” Hanley said. “Amending the constitution is not a trivial thing.”

O’Neil, however, said that the amendment was needed as a backstop for the state’s environmental laws.

“We are lucky that we have strong environmental laws,” O’Neil said. “That said, laws that protect our environment and thus our economy can contain gaps or be undone by political whim.”


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