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Right to clean and healthy environment proposed in Maine

Maine lawmakers are hearing testimony regarding a constitutional amendment that would codify the right to a clean and healthy environment.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Rep. Maggie O'Neil, D-Saco, is proposing a bill that would protect Mainers right to a clean environment. She argued that if Maine had this constitutional amendment, residents could file lawsuits to stop pollution, instead of waiting for the legislature to pass laws to clean it up.

For example? PFAS.

"Our government used to permit spreading sludge that had PFAS and that contaminated soil and there was a point in time that we realized it was toxic and the legislature was taking time to act," O'Neil said.

Members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee had a number of questions for speakers throughout the hearing, including Anthony Moffa, who is an environmental law professor at the University of Maine School of Law. He said other states have taken up this amendment and not had any issues.

"Much of these discussions around these amendments tends to descend into, 'Well, can I sue my neighbor based on this amendment?' And the way this current version is structured, I read it to be as against the government, not necessarily as Mainers against Mainers," Moffa said.

Because this proposal is a constitutional amendment, it needs a substantial amount of support. As it stands now, it has a long way to go.

Even if it survives a committee vote, then it needs two-thirds support in both chambers of the legislature. Then, Maine voters would still get the final say.

Testimony at the public hearing for the proposed bill lasted about three hours of testimony Wednesday, including presentations from younger voters.

"We don't have anything without a clean environment. We wouldn't be able to have these public hearings. We don't have politics. We don't have an economy," Anna Lyons, 20, said.

But not everyone is convinced the bill is a good idea. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection testified neither for nor against this bill.

"In 2021 a similar resolution with much more detail was introduced as LD 489 and opposed by the department," the department said in its testimony.

The DEP said it remains neutral on this bill because as it's written it doesn't modify any state statute.

Others who testified Wednesday said this amendment is really not needed in Maine.

"We support our environment. We want to protect our environment. The regulatory agencies and the structure that we currently have in place we feel is sufficient," Ben Lucas from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce said.

He added the current zoning and other regulations are already doing the job to keep Maine clean and healthy.

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