When the federal Clean Water Act was established 50 years ago to regulate pollution to the country’s rivers and streams and set quality standards for surface waters, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania already had a Clean Streams Law and an Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) to its Constitution on the books.
As a Keystone State legislator, Franklin L. Kury drafted the ERA and was a principal co-author of the Clean Streams Law.
A Democrat, Kury served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1966 to 1972 and the Pennsylvania Senate from 1972 to 1980.
His political life was ignited in 1966 by clean streams legislation, when his would-be opponent voted against an amendment that would bring the coal companies under the Clean Streams Law already on the books.
It was then that a picture taken by his wife Elizabeth, showing two jars of water taken from a creek near Sunbury, Northumberland County, changed the fortunes of Kury and clean water. One jar had dirty water in it, the other had clear water.
The image and the issue got Kury elected.
Representative Kury helped draft part of an overall restructuring of Pennsylvania’s water law, and it was signed in 1970.
Kury, 85 and a retired attorney, grew up in Sunbury around the Susquehanna River, and now lives in Hummelstown, Dauphin County.
He fathered the Environmental Rights Amendment when the environmental tide in the Pennsylvania legislature was never higher.
While serving on the House Conservation Committee, Kury read about the State of New York amending its constitution for a special provision on forest law, and the idea for an amendment hit him.
His draft of an Environmental Rights Amendment to Pennsylvania’s Constitution went through some changes as it was passed by the House and Senate.
The amendment reads– “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.”
Article 1, Section 27
It was enacted on the first Earth Day in 1970 and ratified by Pennsylvania’s voters by a 4-1 margin a year later on May 18, 1971.
The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School called it the strongest environmental amendment in the country.
New York passed an Environmental Rights Amendment in 2021. Advocates in Maryland are calling for an amendment as well.
The ERA declares the people’s right to a clean environment and makes government the trustee of public natural resources.
A trustee is defined as every state official.
Are the trustees of these resources living up to the Environmental Rights Amendment?
Kury says the beauty of the amendment as it is written, is the trust provision and the right of the public.
Although climate change was not seen in 1971 as the threat it is today, the author says the amendment as written covers it.
He says the book’s message is that the principles of Article 1, Section 27 can be the basis for stopping climate change and getting the government to act on the people’s side, not the side of the fossil fuel industry.
Kury would like to see Pennsylvania’s Environment Rights Amendment applied beyond Commonwealth borders and adopted into the U.S. Constitution.