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Do you have a right to a clean environment? 2023 legislation would call on NM voters to decide.


Do you have a right to a clean environment? 2023 legislation would call on NM voters to decide.

Jan 06, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Megan Gleason
Do you have a right to a clean environment? 2023 legislation would call on NM voters to decide.
A muddy Rio Grande runs through the North Valley in October 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

One of the first pieces of legislation prefiled in 2023 aims to give New Mexico voters an opportunity to add a clean and healthy environment to the state’s Bill of Rights.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) is sponsoring a resolution that could secure the legal right to clean air, soil and water for New Mexicans if they approve a change to the state’s constitution.

This measure would make New Mexicans “entitled” to environmental rights, adding an upgrade to 1971 language still in effect that describes a healthy environment only as “important.” Sedillo Lopez said there would be less wiggle room for officials to interpret this new text.

If lawmakers give the OK during the next legislative session, the measure would send a question to voters in the next election. It would be the first amendment in state history to give explicit rights to clean outdoor spaces if it passed.

“This isn’t a guaranteed right to individuals,” Sedillo Lopez said. “This will now be an official constitutional policy of the state. So everyone who swears an oath to the constitution will be swearing to guarantee people clean air, land and water.”

The state’s constitution does offer some protection against pollution in a section that gives the Legislature the authority to regulate air, water and other natural resources while making sure their use is “for the maximum benefit of the people.”

The New Mexico Constitution declares a healthy environment a “fundamental importance to the public interest, health, safety and the general welfare.”

The newer environmental rights legislation has failed to get through the Roundhouse a few times before. The state’s Bill of Rights was last amended in 2016, when New Mexico voters approved a bail reform measure that gives people arrested for crimes the right to not be detained just because they cannot pay a bond.

Sedillo Lopez said if the right to a clean environment is important enough for voters to put it under the Bill of Rights, it could inspire questions about why state environmental agencies aren’t adequately funded or staffed, potentially making way for other legislation or funding.

Maya van Rossum is the founder of Green Amendments for the Generations, an activist group trying to get environmental rights resolutions included in state constitutions across the nation. She said a bill like this would become as fundamental as the freedom of speech or right to bear arms if passed.

“It becomes the principal, the guiding light, the legal guidance that’s needed to implement everything else that’s happening in the state when it comes to the environment — legislation, regulation, programs,” she said.

So far, Pennsylvania, Montana and New York have similar legally binding environmental rights in their books. Sedillo Lopez said about 15 other states are introducing concepts along these lines as well.

New Mexico’s Bill of Rights mirrors the federal version with language protecting citizens’ rights to bear arms, vote and freedom of speech. 

There is no section that explicitly protects environmental rights.

The proposal from Sedillo Lopez includes language that these rights are equitable for everyone, regardless of race, gender, tribal membership, geography or socioeconomic status.

“I think that’s really important because so many of our communities have disproportionately borne the burdens of pollution in our state,” Sedillo Lopez said.

Local environmental advocacy groups have voiced support for this resolution.

“All New Mexicans depend so much on a clean and healthy environment — not just for their water, for their air, for their health, but for economic development, for eco-tourism,” van Rossum said. “So this is going to help lift all of that up.”