NYS Assemblyman Patrick Burke Introduces Great Lakes Bill of Rights
The bill paves the way for litigation against polluters on behalf of the ecosystem
Buffalo, NY – New York State Assemblyman Patrick Burke has introduced legislation that will create a Great Lakes Bill of Rights with the goal of securing legal rights for the entire ecosystem and giving people and nature a role in the decision-making process regarding current and future projects that impact the ecosystem.
The language was drafted with the assistance of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) at the invitation of Assemblyman Burke’s office. CELDF has been at the forefront of Rights of Nature legislation for over 20 years. Beginning with its pioneering work to draft the first law recognizing legal rights for an ecosystem in 2006, CELDF has now partnered with dozens of communities across more than 10 states to enact rights of nature laws.
The Great Lakes Bill of Rights, A3604, recognizes, “that the people and the natural environment, including each ecosystem of the state of New York, shall possess the right to a clean and healthy environment, which shall include the right to clean and healthy Great Lakes and the Great Lakes ecosystem.”
The motivation for introducing a Great Lakes Bill of Rights is the recognition that no person, institution, or nation has the right or authority to participate in activities that contribute to irreversible changes of the Earth’s natural cycles or undermine genetic and species diversity, the consequences of which would fall irrevocably on succeeding generations.
“As climate change affects the Great Lakes, which accounts for over 20% of the world’s freshwater and over 80% of North America’s freshwater, it is up to us to take steps to protect this precious ecosystem. The damage is ours; the obligation is ours,” said Burke.
The legislation recognizes that the Great Lakes have legal rights to exist and would allow the state or affected localities to sue polluters on its behalf. Originally introduced as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the measure received overwhelming support in Assemblyman Burke’s constituent survey.
Recognizing that the health of the Great Lakes adjacent to New York State is inextricably tied to the entire Great Lakes ecosystem, the bill has been amended to encompass Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, within the jurisdiction of New York State. Beyond the lakes themselves, protecting the ecosystem includes the waters which flow into them, which is why the legislation also has been strengthened to include the right of the entire ecosystem to be free from monetization and toxic trespass.
As Dr. Dave Reilly of Niagara University puts it, “A Great Lakes Bill of Rights is a logical and important step toward acknowledging our collective responsibility as stewards of our environment. Our actions as contributors to a kind and compassionate world must reflect what Barry Commoner labeled the first law of ecology: that everything is connected to everything else. Healthy ecosystems promote healthy communities. Promoting biodiversity starts with respecting the essentiality of each species and the intrinsic value of nature. To ensure ecological balance, we need to establish the rights of nature and to reorient our values and behavior to reflect a holistic perspective that integrates our social and ecological systems in a sustainable manner.”
The bill addresses past and ongoing government complicity in environmental destruction not only in New York State, but in other jurisdictions. In other words, communities and ecosystems in New York should no longer have to simply accept harms and pollution in Lake Erie or Lake Ontario that originated elsewhere without recourse.
For over 50 years, New York has legislated ‘permissible’ levels of harm and charged its agencies to issue permits that legalize those harms and grant immunity from liability to commercial operations doing real damage to ecosystems and human communities.
Regulating ecosystem destruction has not resulted in the overall preservation of the natural world, as the very logic of harm regulation is fatally flawed. As Ben Price of CELDF put it, “Other socially harmful behaviors, like burglary and arson, aren’t ‘regulated.’ There isn’t an acceptable amount of assault and battery and permits certainly aren’t issued to legalize violence and protect perpetrators from prosecution.”
According to Representative Burke, “We have shown ourselves abysmally unwise and abundantly foolish to think the Great Lakes and its complex hydro cycles could filter the enormity of our toxic assault on its watershed. Without immediate consequential action to change course, we will, every one of us, be complicit in that crime against Earth and humanity. Now is the time to act decisively.”