From CNN's February 22, 2023 Pennsylvania attorney general’s office will investigate Norfolk Southern after ‘criminal referral’ from state officials

“Our office has been monitoring the train derailment in East Palestine and we are outraged on behalf of the residents who have suffered the consequences of this catastrophe,” the office of acting Attorney General Michelle Henry wrote in a statement Tuesday.

and a bit later they quote Michelle Henry:

“Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water, and we will not hesitate to hold anyone or any company responsible for environmental crimes in our Commonwealth.”

I'm not calling the statement into question, it's likely a state's attorney general won't be just making things up.

But I wonder in exactly what way do Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water. Is it explicitly covered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's constitution, or the US constitution, or is the AG likely referring to some more fundamental constitutional right and proposing to argue that access to clean air and pure water is part of it?

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    Sorry, but downvote here. A simple google search (or any other search engine, I would assume) of "Pennsylvania constitution clean air" gives the answer to this, so it would appear not even the most basic preliminary research was done.
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 23, 2023 at 13:39
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    "State of Pennsylvania" => "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania"
    – shoover
    Feb 23, 2023 at 16:56
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    @shoover Thank you for that. I guess it is okay to refer to it a state (as in the title) but "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" is the official name of said state?
    – uhoh
    Feb 23, 2023 at 23:49
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    @uhoh yes
    – shoover
    Feb 24, 2023 at 3:46
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    @CGCampbell yes one should vote one's conscience and the tooltip does indeed suggest that as a voting criteria and the advertisement as comment does amplify the down voting, but now with over 2,500+ views and +38/-0 votes on the answer, I think this question has served it's primary purpose, to facilitate yet another good answer to an on-topic question. All is well.
    – uhoh
    Feb 24, 2023 at 5:58

2 Answers 2


Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution is a declaration of rights, among which are the "right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment."

The full text of Pennsylvania's constitution can be found here, and the relevant part is section 27:

§ 27. Natural resources and the public estate.

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.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in this article on their site, that section was drafted in 1967, and widely supported by Pennsylvanians during a referendum in 1971:

The first Earth Day launched the movement to create laws and programs that make sure we have clean water to drink, and protections for our air, land, and wildlife.

At that same time, Franklin Kury was working to address the impacts that industries like coal and steel had in Pennsylvania, especially on rivers and streams.

As a member of the House of Representatives in 1967, Kury drafted and introduced the legislation that led to the establishment of Section 27 of the Declaration of the People’s Rights.

Fifty years ago, on May 18, 1971, Pennsylvanians went to the polls and three out of four of them voted for the change, ratifying Article 1, Section 27.

What followed were major statutes and regulations protecting the air, land, and water from degradation in Pennsylvania.

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    That is surprisingly progressive. In Germany environmental concerns were introduced into the Grundgesetz only in 1994. And the article 20a does not establish an individual, enforceable right (a Grundrecht) but only a "national goal" or "objective" which binds the government. Feb 24, 2023 at 12:19
  • Likely an off-topic dive into Law, but if I were a lawyer for NS and this case were filed, I'd claim that it's the Commonwealth's problem for failing to protect their own environment since the accident happened in Ohio. But that's just me...
    – FreeMan
    Feb 24, 2023 at 16:55
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    @FreeMan and if I were a lawyer for PA, I might point out that PA is protecting its own environment by suing NS for damages which will be used to clean it up and punitive damages to protect it in future by disincentivizing such behaviour from all companies. Feb 24, 2023 at 22:49

Speaking on the Federal Constitution, while not stated in the text directly, The 9th Amendment does state the following:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Essentially, that the proceeding 8 amendments in the bill of rights are not the end all be all on the rights of the people.

The 10th Amendment states the following.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Essentially backing up the 9th amendment by stating that if something is not explicitly mentioned as a power of the Federal Government, then the power is granted to the states or the people.

Essentially, from the Federal Constitutional point of view, just because we didn't write it down doesn't mean it's not a right... it's just not a right we have power to legislate on.

It should be pointed out that the Bill of Rights at the time was inspired by the Liberal ideology of "Natural Rights" (often phrased as "God-Given Rights") which are essentially the rights and powers of a human being by dint of the fact that they are human and are things that you may do in absences of any government law and in harm to another legal person.

  • If it's not a "right we have power to legislate on" then it also seems like it woudn't be something the AG can take someone to court on.
    – Barmar
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:16
  • In this case, the AG would be taking a party to court over their violation of other's rights to clean air and water. You have a right to life, so the state will take people who try to or succeed in murdering you to court.
    – hszmv
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:55
  • @Barmar see my earlier comment.
    – hszmv
    Feb 23, 2023 at 15:56
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    Is that really comparable? There are explicit statutes that define the crimes of murder and manslaughter. If someone deprives you of your right to life, you'll be charged with one of those, not for depriving someone of their "right to life".
    – Barmar
    Feb 23, 2023 at 16:27
  • @Barmar And governments have environmental protection laws and regulations. And to your point, my home state doesn't have a codified definition of what a murder is (more of a strong case law defining it well before the nation's founding) but the reason why murder is illegal is it's depriving someone of life without just cause.
    – hszmv
    Feb 23, 2023 at 16:31

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