Thursday, December 4, 2014

Protecting Our Rights to Pure Water, Clean Air and a Healthy Environment

Our rights to free speech and religious freedom are among the many fundamental rights guaranteed by our federal and state constitutions, which we fiercely fight to protect in the United States.

But while our Declaration of Independence talks about the right to life and the pursuit of happiness, what we do not find in our U.S. Constitution are the rights to three basic needs for life and happiness: our rights to pure water, clean air, and healthy environments.

Only a few state constitutions include environmental rights among the list of rights to which we are each individually entitled. Pennsylvania is currently the state with the most protective environmental rights amendment in its state constitution, and its state Bill of Rights also enumerate those protections. And this past year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court breathed substantive life into the provision.

Until recently, despite the Environmental Rights Amendment in Pennsylvania’s constitution, the courts did not give due protection to the fundamental rights it pronounces. But as the result of a legal action brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and seven towns, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared the environmental rights of Pennsylvanians inviolable and deserving of the highest levels of protection in the State.

In the case, titled Robinson Township, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, et al. v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court went a fundamental step further than just protecting environmental rights in the state. The courts made clear that our environmental rights are not granted to us, but are in fact inherent and indefeasible rights (meaning they are rights given to us by nature and that cannot be taken from us by government or law). Of further significance, the plurality of the court said that these environmental rights belong not just to present generations living on the earth today, but they are rights that must be protected for the future generations yet to come.

Why is this important? Because every day local, state, and federal governments are granting permission to industries to pollute, deforest, denigrate, and despoil our environments, which is having serious effects on our planet and our bodies. For example, an estimated 1.3 million cancer deaths per year result from exposure to pollution in the environment, while air pollution has been characterized as “the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” causing the death of approximately 7 million people in a given year.

Often, the permission to pollute is defended by the assertion that it will create jobs, or that the near-term gain of a new energy source overshadows the need to consider environmental degradation and its harmful impacts. These kinds of excuses do not justify the harms that polluting industries create. After all, what good is a job if you don’t have the health needed to take advantage of it, or if you have to sacrifice your parent, child, friend, or neighbor in order to have it?

And the truth is that most goals can be achieved in a way that protects the environment and communities. For example:

-- Instead of drilling and fracking, which irreparably pollutes our water, air, and lands, by the year 2050 we could provide that very same energy using sustainable methods, such as wind, water, solar, and geothermal, while simultaneously avoiding the devastating pollution and climate-changing impacts of shale gas.

-- Instead of developing land by cutting down all of the trees, which creates floods, developers could use building practices that protect trees and the absorbency of the soils and capture rainfall in a way that allows the water to soak into the ground and doesn’t generate devastating floods and pollution.

Of the 35 states with constitutional environmental provisions, only Rhode Island, Montana, and Pennsylvania provide high-level protection, and of those only Pennsylvania has court rulings that ensure these rights are genuinely protected. There are 15 states with no provisions whatsoever.

It’s time for communities across the nation to demand that their environmental rights be protected by their states. It’s time for us all to embrace the truth stated by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, that we as people have an inherent and indefeasible right to pure water, clean air, and healthy environments.

To learn more, visit

This blog, written by Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, was originally posted on:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Green Lawns Don’t Make For “Green” Yards

Traditional front lawn -- see last pictures for this lawn
restored with native plants

The natural world around us is awakening from a tough winter.  Our yards are greening up as the weather warms, but are our yards as “green” as they could be?

All across the country as communities have expanded and new developments have been built, the amount of land covered with a green grass carpet has grown.  We have lost the native vegetation, trees and shrubs in particular, that should characterize our landscapes.  Just as we have lost our native trees and shrubs, we have seen floodwaters rising, streambanks eroding, drinking wells running dry and declining water quality.  There is a direct connection between the loss of native vegetation across our communities and what is happening to our local streams and those that live downstream.

When vegetated with native trees and shrubs, when covered in a blanket of decaying leaves, needles and wood, the land acts as a sponge.  Rainwater percolates into the soil, filtering down to the water table below to re-supply the aquifers that provide our drinking water.  Rainwater also provides base flow to our streams, creeks and rivers.  The landscape, in this natural state, is alive with life — birds sing in the trees, squirrels dance across the ground, bugs revel in the earth.  Our lives are richer and our water flows free and clean.

Not all vegetation is created equal, however.  Lands vegetated only with grass cannot perform the functions of the natural landscape.  Lawns don’t act as sponges.  Lawn mowers, heavy use and foot traffic all cause soil compaction which limits infiltration.  Lawns established as part of a development have soils compacted intentionally for site engineering and construction purposes.  As a result, lawns more closely resemble impervious surfaces.  Like sidewalks and roadways, lawns shed rain during a storm event rather than allowing it to infiltrate.

Water rushing off lawn dumping to stream.
The bulk density of soil — the mass of a dry soil divided by its volume, and expressed as grams per cubic centimeter (gms/cc) — can provide an estimate of its compaction.  Bulk density increases as soil becomes more compact.  Not surprisingly, lawns can have high bulk densities, from 1.5 to 1.9 gms/cc, rivaling that of concrete which has a bulk density of 2.2 gms/cc.[i]

Lawns generate significantly more stormwater runoff than meadow, scrub vegetation or forests.  What’s more, runoff from our lawns is often carrying with it any excess or improperly applied fertilizers and pesticides.  This runoff is channeled, usually by roads, to a nearby storm drain, which is likely receiving runoff from other lawns, roadways and communities. Stormwater runoff travels through storm sewers to a local creek where it combines with the runoff from all other upstream communities.

Our stream channels are being scoured by fast-moving stormwater.  Streambanks are being eroded and, when they have been cleared of vegetation or are maintained as close cropped lawn, they are particularly susceptible.  The eroded sediments turn our streams a chocolate brown, depriving fish and plants of light. When the sediment settles out of the water column, it smothers the streambed where aquatic insects live and where fish lay their eggs.

More and more frequently, downstream communities are suffering the effects of the loss of open space and vegetation upstream.  These downstream communities are experiencing higher and more frequent flooding caused by increasing stormwater flows.  Communities are bearing the brunt of the loss vegetation.  And both upstream and downstream communities include among their vegetation clearing practices, the streambanks and floodplains that could otherwise serve as part of a protective solution.  Wide forested buffers and vegetated floodplains can serve as a place for holding and filtering floodwaters and runoff, their roots prevent erosion of public and private lands, and they provide the habitat that ensures healthy bugs and fish that actually help cleanup pollution that has already entered our streams.  The combination of cleared lands throughout the watershed, and denuded, or barely vegetated, streamside lands and floodplains packs a powerful combination punch of harm.

Stormwater detention basins, as they are presently constructed, do little to alleviate problems associated with runoff, and they can, in fact make problems worse.  These basins serve only to reduce peak flows of stormwater runoff, and ultimately prolong the harmful impacts of a storm event on our streams and on downstream communities.  Planting our stream corridors more with vegetation, especially trees and shrubs, could moderate the effects of increased stormwater runoff.

We can also have an impact with how we manage our own lands, public and private.  Many of us enjoy a grassy area in our yards, a place to play, sunbathe or read.  We can continue to enjoy our spot in the sun, but we can also reduce the total amount of lawn we maintain.  Start by re-vegetating little used grassy area.  Plant native plants.  Add a garden.  Consider adding a perimeter of native trees, shrubs.  Doing so not only beautifies our gardens, increases the value of our homes, provides shading to cool homes in the warm summer months reducing cooling costs, and provides a visual and noise buffer that can enhance our quality of life, but it provides flood and pollution prevention and protection to our downstream neighbors.

same front yard as above
For those of us who have streams in our yards, it is vitally important that we take on the added obligation of protecting and/or putting in place wide vegetated buffers filled with native trees, shrubs and plants that will prevent streamside erosion, help reduce flood flows and peaks, and can help filter out pollution found in the creek. 

Through simple landscaping practices we can improve local water quality, contribute to flood relief for downstream communities, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, bring privacy and peace to our own back yards while still allowing for the lawns many people so love to mow.

Authored by Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

[i] Schueler, T. 2000. The Compaction of Urban Soil: The Practice of Watershed Protection. Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD. Pages 210-214.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

President’s Spin on Asia Trip and Trade Deal Ignores Harms of the TPP

The President is heading to Asia with an eye to pressing forward passage of a new trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP). The  problem?  The TPP is a bad deal all the way around or our country, at least as currently written and proposed. 

It will jeopardize food safety: .

And while it is light on environmental preservation, it is heavy on corporate protection: . 

And to top it off, the President wants Congress to pass a piece of legislation called the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014  -- “Fast Track” for short – that will diminish our democracy.  Fast Track would give the President super powers to be able to continue to negotiate the TPP deal in secret, to sign the deal on behalf of the United States, to draft and put forth the legislation that would implement his secretly negotiated deal, and to relegate our Congress to a mere “yay” or “nay” vote, no hearings, no amendments, and very little conversation at all.  

Just looking at the issue of shale gas development -- the TPP, and the Fast Track legislation designed to grease its path through Congress …

      do not support strong job creation, they actually hurts it;
      do not support energy independence, they actually diminishes it; and
      certainly do not help protect our environment, they help to devastate it.

TPP Will Increase Fracked Gas Exports, Economic and Job Losses, and Environmental Harm
There is already a rush to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) because gas is selling for as much as 3 to 4 times the price overseas as in the U.S.  Advocates for LNG exports are using the situation in Ukraine as a renewed call for exporting US fracked gas as LNG in order to bolster their press for more drilling and fracking. 

If passed as planned, the TPP will give special status to new countries who will benefit from automatic approval of LNG export plans – those countries include Japan, Vietman, Brunei, Malaysia, and New Zealand, with China expected to be added to the list soon.  That means environmental and economic reviews of the impacts of new LNG construction, operation and export would be by-passed. 

LNG operations are not about economic or job prosperity for the people of our nation.  Information submitted to the Department of Energy demonstrates that while LNG exports generate increased revenues for the gas exporters and gas companies, other areas of the U.S. economy, as a result of exports, decline.  Among the losses are job losses.  LNG exports harm labor income and jobs in many other sectors of the economy such as paper, metals, chemicals, stone, clay, glass, plastics, and food processing. If LNG is allowed to proceed nationally as is being considered it is estimated that as many as 270,000 jobs could be lost. In fact, if LNG is allowed to grow as is being proposed, folks in every major sector, except for natural gas, will lose income; and we all will have to pay more for goods and services as the impact of increased gas prices reverberates through the economy.  (for more see:  Will LNG Exports Benefit the United States Economy? Synapse Energy Economics, Jan 23, 2013)

TPP Will Mean More Fracking and Drilling In Our Communities – Bringing Economic and Environmental Harms.
More LNG exports means more pressure for shale gas development and fracking.

More drilling and fracking does not mean economic prosperity.  An increasing number of reports scrutinizing the job claims of drilling companies is demonstrating their claims of benefits to be increasingly false.   As one recent report stated: 

Employment estimates have been overstated, and the industry and its boosters have used inappropriate employment numbers, including equating new hires with new jobs and using ancillary job figures that largely have nothing to do with drilling, even after the flaws in those numbers have been brought to their attention. …..  [S]hale-related employment across the six-state Marcellus/Utica region fell over the past 12 months for which data exist, from the 1st quarter of 2012 to the 1st quarter of 2013.” (

The unparalleled level of harm to drinking water, air quality, food supplies, and people’s health that result from ongoing and increasing levels of drilling and fracking for shale gas bring high price tags for the United States economy and taxpayers.  Not only do our communities lose out on life’s basic needs – air, water, food and health – but we as taxpayers have to pay the upfront and long-term financial burden of these harms, including the necessary clean up and health care costs. 

The deforestation, land compaction, wetlands destruction, and increased earthquake potential inflicted by shale gas development means increased flooding and flood ravaged homes and communities; it means increased erosion of public and private lands; it means the fear and harm of an earthquake where it happens; it means lost fishing, hunting, boating, birding and all the jobs they generate.  And of course someone has to pay for all this harm too – that someone is you and me in the form of emergency services, taxes, hazard mitigation, and more national debt.

And increased drilling will bring with it harm for jobs and economic prosperity.  For example, our healthy Delaware River contributes $22 billion in annual economic activity.  Increased drilling and fracking brings harm to the River which means harm for this economic vitality. 

TPP Empowers Industry to Undermine Community Protection Laws Here in the U.S.
Not only will the TPP pump up the pressure for drilling and fracking, and grease the wheels for LNG, but the TPP would give foreign corporations the right to sue our government for millions of dollars if they believe a U.S. environmental law (State, Federal or local) has diminished its ability to make profits – one corporation is already taking action under similar provisions in NAFTA against Canada for a ban on fracking passed in Quebec.  So environmental protections at the local, state or even federal law designed to protect our communities from the harms of drilling, could actually be legally challenged and fall under explicit provisions in the TPP designed to give Corporations the upper hand.

So don’t buy the bunk you are hearing about the values of the President’s Asia trip and his push for the TPP and Fast Track. See the President’s support of the TPP for what it is – another sell out of the residents and citizens of the U.S. to industry and big money donors.

Take a moment to make your voice heard on this important issue: