As he lay in bed late at night, Placitas, New Mexico resident Michael Neas was half-listening to the radio when he heard the words “Green Amendment.”
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” said Neas, a retired general contractor. “I turned on the radio and sat down, and I was concentrating.”
Talk show host Thom Hartmann was speaking with Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum about efforts to use amendments to state constitutions to protect environmental rights.
The next morning, Neas called van Rossum and asked for his help in amending New Mexico’s constitution to include environmental rights, an effort that was successful in only three states. Two years later, the idea has a chance of being put on the ballot in this year’s general election.
But a Friday hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, where a previous version of the resolution proposing the amendment died last year, may determine whether the current resolution dies or moves to a vote in the New York House of Representatives. Mexico.
The resolution, presented by the senses. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Joanne Ferrary, both Democrats, would guarantee the right of the people to “clean and healthy air, water, soil and environment; a stable climate; and self-sustaining ecosystems, for the benefit of public health, safety and general well-being.
“[The amendment] opens up a hopeful future in which injured people have a real opportunity to seek redress and resolve very serious issues in New Mexico,” said Clifford Villa, professor of environmental law at New Mexico Law School. the University of New Mexico.
If the resolution passes, New Mexico would become the fourth state in the nation to pass a green amendment that incorporates environmental rights into its bill of rights, following New York, Montana and Pennsylvania, which became the first state to adopt one more than half a century ago. Currently, New Mexico is one of twelve states considering a green amendment. The United States is one of 37 countries worldwide who do not constitutionally recognize the right to a clean and healthy environment.
The New Mexico Green Amendment would not only protect the state’s plants and animals, but also sites like Chaco Canyon that are culturally significant to Native Americans.
Van Rossum, who is also an environmental lawyer, successfully used the Pennsylvania amendment to challenge a pro-fracking law in 2013, and has since advocated for states to pass similar amendments.
Sedillo Lopez introduced the bill last year, but it stalled in committee. To help this year’s version avoid that end, the state’s current joint resolution states that monetary damages will not be awarded for a violation of this amendment, language that was not part of the green amendment. offered last year. The intention, van Rossum said, is to achieve “equitable remedies” – essentially, to demand that governments actually repair environmental damage, rather than simply pay damages.
Unlike regular bills, if the resolution succeeds in passing the legislature, it will not have to be sent to the governor for approval. Instead, as a proposed amendment, it will be put on the ballot in the next general election.
The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee was tied in a vote, but later passed it on Feb. 5 after adjusting language. It now goes to the vote of the House Judiciary Committee. If he passes, he will then move on to the New Mexico House of Representatives before facing the state Senate. But the Judiciary Committee is where last year’s version of the resolution died, and the new version is running out of time to be voted on. This year, New Mexico’s legislative session lasts only 30 days and ends on February 17.
“Once you have a green amendment, what it does is it augments environmental rights, so that they have the same highest constitutional status and protection as all other rights. fundamentals that are dear to us,” said van Rossum.
The movement in New Mexico has gained momentum since it was first introduced to lawmakers in 2020. Van Rossum attributes this to grassroots outreach efforts. Nicole Olonovich, a Hispanic from New Mexico and community activist, said people were surprised to find that a clean and healthy environment is not a constitutional right.
“This right that we assume is a right, we assume it is law, is not law, and that’s the first step,” Olonovich said.
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Only four lawmakers sponsored the bill last year. The current bill has 25 legislative sponsors, all Democrats.
If ratified, the amendment would be a significant victory for marginalized communities living in what environmental justice advocates often call “sacrifice zones,” or areas overloaded with polluting infrastructure, such as factories, landfills and highways.
“I want the water in our land and our air protected, and making that a human right is extremely important and extremely valuable to our human existence,” said Terry Sloan, director of Southwest Native Cultures and Navajo and Hopi Native American. .
Opponents of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee’s first hearing in late January said the amendment was unnecessary, could potentially harm natural resource-dependent industries and that his language was too broad.
New Mexico is the third-largest oil-producing state in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration, after Texas and North Dakota. Oil and gas contributed an average of one-third of the state’s annual budget for about seven years.
Tiffany Rivera, lobbyist for the New Mexico Bureau of Agriculture and Livestock, told lawmakers at the January hearing that “the language is ambiguous and vague and leaves a lot to personal interpretation as to what is considered clean and healthy”.
Eric Jantz, senior attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said “civil rights are broadly outlined” and the amendment would allow for a fairer process to seek environmental justice.
There are 23 tribes and 19 pueblos in the state of New Mexico that need these protections, Olonovich said.
Van Rossum’s ultimate goal is to take the fight for a cleaner environment to the federal level. For now, she says, the movement is moving state by state.