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Does a community have a right to clean air and water?

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By Ruthi Engelke

(Image by Nicki Lisa Cole / 21st Century Nomad)   Permission   Details   DMCA
Colorado citizens are attempting to reclaim their right to a safe, healthy environment by enacting the Colorado Community Rights amendment to the Colorado Constitution. The amendment declares that "the people have an inherent and inalienable right to local self-government." The push to amend the Colorado Constitution grew out of attempts by municipalities to ban fracking in their communities but was expanded to include any laws that attempt to protect the health, safety, and welfare of people in communities. The amendment is being proposed by the Colorado Community Rights Network (CoCRN).

When some Colorado communities attempted to pass laws to regulate industry practices such as fracking in their communities, they were promptly sued by the pro-fracking interests of the oil and gas industry, arguing that regulatory authority lies with the state, not local governments. Oil and gas corporations are using the state government as a proxy to further their own interests at the expense of communities. Therefore, it is technically illegal for a community to ban fracking or anything else a corporate entity proposes that harms public health, such as disposing of toxic waste or using genetically-modified organisms.

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CoCRN board member Cliff Willmeng calls this "a civil rights issue that is rising out of an environmental topic." Their amendment calls for "the power to enact local laws protecting health, safety and welfare by recognizing the fundamental rights of people, communities, and the natural environment." The CoCRN approach challenges laws that diminish the basic rights of communities to clean air and water by questioning why citizens do not have the right to control their own environment. As things currently stand, corporations seem to think their right to generate profit supersedes our basic human rights, including our right to sustain the natural habitats of our communities.

In an ironic twist, fossil fuel corporations accuse CoCRN of taking things too far. Yet, when groups try to utilize regulatory measures to make projects safer, they found themselves heading down a regulatory rat hole. (Note that this process is never about whether or not the project should happen to begin with, but how to make a project--with inherent dangers--safer.) Large corporations operate to make money above all else, without consideration for the communities in which they operate or the environment their operations affect. The industry will not allow itself to be regulated to the point where it cuts into their bottom line. They are perfectly comfortable with hearings that go nowhere, making it nearly impossible to enforce any reasonable regulations.

CoCRN members do not believe these issues can be solved by the courts, since the courts are essentially beholden to the same corporate interests. The Colorado Community Rights Amendment is a vehicle to change the boundaries of political forces. At present, communities do not have the legal authority to say "no" to any corporate project, because authority is granted through state preemption, which trumps any authority from the community. This state ballot initiative addresses the legal idea of state preemption because local rights are meaningless without a way to enforce them.

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The Colorado Community Rights Amendment allocates municipalities the legal right to enact laws to protect their fundamental rights. It is a binding way to put giant corporations back in their place and allow communities to dictate their own futures. By amending the Colorado constitution, communities will be empowered to stand up to the corporations who bully them.

The strategy of the coalition is not to win in immediacy, but to draw the conflict out into the light of day. The power of corporations to spend excessive sums of money to influence governments and manipulate the regulatory process is so destructive that it needs to be challenged, confronted, and fundamentally erased in order for a real democracy to thrive.

Further, amending the US Constitution to state that corporations are not entitled to inherent Constitutional rights and money is not a form of protected political speech would create the necessary conditions for states to act in the best interest of their citizens and the environment. Instead of bowing to the pressure of their corporate masters, elected officials would find themselves on a new playing field, where corporations hold no sway, and they can get back to the business of serving their (human) constituents.

For more information about the campaign in Colorado, check out the Colorado Community Rights Network website. Check out for more information about the campaign to amend the Constitution to solve this issue at the national level and ensure communities all over the US, not just in Colorado, can control their own destinies and protect their citizens.

Check out this episode of the Move to Amend Reports podcast for an interview with two organizers of the CO Community Rights Campaign.

Ruthi Engelke recently completed a MA in literature and writing from the University of Houston at Clear Lake. She taught high school theater and English for the last thirteen years and has taught writing at the university level. She is a volunteer with the Move to Amend campaign.

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The Move to Amend Coalition is a grassroots campaign to amend the Constitution to state that artificial entities such as corporations, unions, and non-profits do not have inherent rights under the Constitution, and that money is not free speech so (more...)

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