Lawmakers must do their duty
Coal and heavy industry built the industrial landscape of Pennsylvania while battering its environment in many ways. Though the state remains breathtakingly beautiful in many areas, some of its old environmental scars remain detrimental to public health and safety, and economic development.
It's not that the people and political leaders haven't learned from the experience. Largely due to the reckless exploitation of Pennsylvania's resources that created so much environmental damage, Section 27 of the state constitution now states:
"The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
It's a stirring statement, but the new Supreme Court ruling is an all-too-rare reminder to the Legislature that the Environmental Rights Amendment is supposed to more than a statement. It makes the state government the environmental steward in behalf of all the people.
Too often, as in the case on which the court ruled, the government has ignored its duty under Section 27 to better serve developers. It did so , for example, when the state Public Utility Commission approved the eyesore of a power line now being built across Northeast Pennsylvania's ridge lines.
And the Legislature did so in 2012 when it passed Act 13, the law that governs gas drilling. Lawmakers, in their zeal to serve the industry, stripped from municipal governments their power to regulate drilling under existing zoning laws.
By a 4-2 vote, the court restored that zoning power, with three of the four justices in the majority saying that the law violated Section 27.
Lawmakers should not take the decision as a one-time aberration. Rather they should heed the judges' admonition that the state government's role under Section 27 is a duty rather than a suggestion.
Meanwhile, substantial advances in drilling efficiency, even since the beginning of the Marcellus Shale boom in Pennsylvania, should enable drillers to continue to develop the industry in most areas while complying with local zoning.