Amerikohl –Richland Township – Clarion County – PA Supreme Court
The June 20, 2017 decision by the PA Supreme Court on Docket # J-35-2016 is an important reminder to Richland Township and Clarion County of their constitutional duty to “conserve and maintain” the natural resources of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, otherwise known as the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) states that:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic 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.
The ERA “grants two separate rights to the people of the Commonwealth,” the first is “a prohibitory clause declaring the right of citizens to clean air and pure water, and to the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic value of the environment.” This clause “places a limitation on the state’s power to act contrary to this right, and while the subject of this right may be amenable to regulation, any laws that unreasonably impair the right are unconstitutional.”
The second right reserved by the ERA “is the common ownership by the people, including future generations, of Pennsylvania’s public natural resources.” The phrase “public natural resources” includes not only state-owned lands and waterways but also “resources that implicate the public interest, such as ambient air, surface and ground water, wild flora, and fauna (including fish).” This includes the unnamed tributaries to Turkey Run, the Clarion River, and the Allegheny River that would be directly and indirectly impacted by Amerikohl’s proposed strip mine.
The third clause of the ERA “establishes a public trust, in which the natural resources (see above) are the body of the trust, the Commonwealth is the trustee, and the people are the named beneficiaries.” All agencies and entities of the Commonwealth government, statewide and local, have a fiduciary duty to act toward the body with prudence, loyalty, and impartiality not just as proprietor. The Commonwealth’s duty to prohibit the degradation, diminution, and depletion of our public natural resources applies not only to “direct state action” but also to “the actions of private parties” such as the one proposed by Amerikohl.