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Green Amendment stalls in committee

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

Delaware's House Administration Committee tabled the Green Amendment on Thursday: a proposal to amend the state constitution to guarantee Delawareans the right to clean air, water and soil.

State Rep. Medinah Wilson-Anton’s amendment would also give residents the ability to sue state agencies for violating those rights – something she says could push Delaware to address long-standing water quality and soil contamination problems more aggressively. Ahead of the committee's vote, supporters crowded into the packed hearing room to testify about experiences with unsafe drinking water and other first-hand encounters with environmental protection failures.

But the amendment drew opposition from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, a member of the committee, argued it would make the state liable for the wrongdoing of private companies generally responsible for pollution.

“I’m very much concerned about the environment just like everybody else in this room," he said, "but I’m also concerned about the idea that we’d be shifting the liability away from the people who should be paying for it and making everybody in the state pay for it.”

Wilson-Anton argues any lawsuits might point out where the state’s enforcement of environmental protections fall short.

"I can’t say where lawsuits would come from if they were to come to fruition if this passed, " she said. "What I can say is that if the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control are so worried about lawsuits, then maybe we should be doing a more proactive job as a state.”

The amendment also faced Republican opposition. They argued it could drive poultry growers and other agricultural businesses out of the state. Wilson-Anton notes the proposal does not extend liability to private businesses, though she says she is willing to clarify that detail in the preamble of the bill.

The amendment is based on a 1971 Pennsylvania law that some environmental activists look to as a model for other states. But after a resounding committee vote to table the bill on Thursday, the amendment appears to have a difficult path forward in Delaware.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.