Voice of the Delaware

Maya van Rossum and her son, Wim.

Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum Advocates for Environmental Rights

By Lori Goldstein | Photos courtesy of delawareriverkeeper.org

As the Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum is the voice of the Delaware River as well as the leader of a staff of attorneys, scientists, grassroots organizers, and 25,000 member advocates who comprise the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN). Whenever she speaks, her voice is passionate, energetic, and confident.

Maya van Rossum speaks at an anti-fracking rally.

She is also the author of a landmark book, The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment, in which she argues that since existing environmental laws have failed us, each state must protect its inalienable right to a healthy environment with a Green Amendment to its constitution’s Bill of Rights. And she has launched a national Green Amendment movement to advance constitutional environmental rights across our country.

The first time I heard van Rossum speak publicly was at a Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) meeting in December 2019. The DRBC is the agency charged with managing the Basin’s water resources. The governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, plus a representative from the federal government, form the Commission, with the objectives of protecting water quality and a sustainable water supply.

At the meeting, she and some 100-plus fellow activists, dressed in neon-green shirts and headbands that said “No PennEast,” were there to protest the controversial PennEast pipeline that would run beneath Pennsylvania and cross the Delaware into New Jersey. Each activist had three minutes to read a portion from a 16-page community comment. When DRBC Director Steve Tambini referred to their “prepared script,” van Rossum grabbed the microphone to say she strongly objected to his attitude toward their commentary, which represented the serious concerns of community members in both states, some of whom had traveled five hours by bus.

How does she speak with such feistiness and authority? As the Delaware Riverkeeper for more than 25 years, van Rossum “protect[s] the Delaware River and its watershed, 13,539 square miles of land spanning … Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York.” A licensed environmental attorney, she commands respect with her expertise as the community-appointed custodian of this domain. Beginning with the East and West branches in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the Delaware forms a natural border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey until it meets tidewater at Trenton, then flows through Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington, and ultimately, after its 330-mile journey, empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

American Rivers, a national advocacy organization, named the Delaware River its 2020 River of the Year. This honorary designation celebrates its great progress and ongoing work towards clean water and river restoration. 

In The Green Amendment, van Rossum explains the countless threats to animal, plant, and human life. The chapter “Living in the Sacrifice Zone” describes the plight of the Atlantic sturgeon, a genetically unique fish found nowhere in the world except the Delaware River. Prized for its eggs, the sturgeon made “the Delaware the caviar capital of North America” in the 19th century; now it is on the federal Endangered Species list, with only 300 spawning adults left. As noted in the book, “Dredging and deepening of the Delaware River’s main navigation channel to accommodate larger ships take a significant toll on the species.”

While water quality in the River has improved over the years, there are still many concerns. Fish such as shad and striped bass fare better than the sturgeon but are not back to the historic numbers of the early 1900s.

In the chapter “Fracking Away Our Future,” van Rossum writes that the Dominion fracking company informed Southwestern Pennsylvania farmer Terry Greenwood that while he had property rights to his land, he didn’t have mineral rights. Dominion constructed two industrial fracking wells so close to his groundwater wells and pond that his cattle started dying at unprecedented rates and the well water was so contaminated it resembled iced tea. The property value of his farm was drastically reduced, but more importantly, he had an early death at age 66 due to brain cancer.

Pennsylvania — like West Virginia, Ohio, and New York — has a robust fracking industry that’s highly damaging to our health and environment, says van Rossum. Using excessive amounts of water and chemicals to pressure-release natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, fracking companies rob communities of fresh water, have contaminated drinking water beneath the surface, and produce wastewater that contains carcinogens and radioactive materials. Fracking is a significant source of methane, a climate-changing gas more dangerous than carbon dioxide, especially when we look forward 20 years, the time we have left to make needed change, she notes.

To help the reader understand why so many communities are in environmental crisis, van Rossum’s book explores how current environmental laws focus too much on permitting pollution rather than preventing it. She traces the history of the Green Amendments, which currently exist in the state constitutions of only Pennsylvania and Montana. Pennsylvania’s amendment, Article 1, Section 27, was written in 1971 by legislator Franklin Kury. “For 49 years, we had this great Green Amendment language in the constitution but legally there was no benefit for the people of Pennsylvania, because according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it was just policy,” says van Rossum. “The way I describe policy is, policy is good advice; you can take it or you can leave it, and in Pennsylvania they left it.”

It wasn’t until 2012, when attorney Jordan Yeager litigated on behalf of the DRN and seven Pennsylvania towns against the notorious Act 13 — a seeming giveaway to the fracking industry — that it was found to be unconstitutional according to the Green Amendment. Van Rossum maintains that our right to a healthy environment is as inalienable as our rights to freedom of speech and religion. She also cautions that such well-intentioned laws as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act have not protected us sufficiently. She implores us to “turn our attention now to constitutional rights” to better enable us to succeed “where even the most elaborate and well-intentioned legislation has failed.”

In New Jersey, there is currently bipartisan support for a Green Amendment in both the Assembly and the Senate, with Democrat Linda Greenstein and Republican Kip Bateman as the Senate’s co-sponsors. What this bipartisanship shows and “what I believe is one of the powers of a Green Amendment, is that it does span all political parties, all communities, all ethnicities, all income levels — because we all need clean water and clean air to have healthy lives,” says van Rossum. “So it’s hard for a legislator to come out and say ‘I don’t believe in your child’s right to clean water and clean air,’ and that’s literally what they’d have to do if they choose not to support a Green Amendment.”

Van Rossum exhorts us to “change our constitutions, to recognize that our right to life, liberty, happiness, and a clean and healthy environment far outshadows the rights of others to pollute for profit.” The DRN has achieved a moratorium on any new fracking in the watershed, but there are countless imminent proposals, such as the PennEast pipeline, which would adversely affect Hunterdon and Mercer counties. “New Jersey has long thought of itself as an environmental leader, passing strong laws to protect New Jersey’s environment,” she says.

In September 2019, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration battled against PennEast, winning a Third Circuit court decision that said New Jersey had sovereign immunity; PennEast could not seize the land under the principle of eminent domain. The company has appealed to the Supreme Court and convinced the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to declare that the circuit court misinterpreted the law.

PennEast countered by dividing the project into two phases — one in Pennsylvania, the second in New Jersey — but in 2014, the DRN set a precedent with the Northeast Upgrade project, proving “segmentation” of this kind was illegal according to the National Environmental Policy Act. The DRN is going through the steps right now to challenge the legality of PennEast’s segmentation. PennEast is also trying to get out from under the authority of the DRBC, which “has clear authority to regulate the pipeline.”

DRN advocates along the banks of the Delaware, after their protest against the PennEast pipeline during a DRBC meeting. 

According to van Rossum, another serious environmental threat is the proposal for the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility to be located in Gibbstown, New Jersey, on the Delaware. It would involve the transportation of highly explosive LNG by truck and by rail, through densely populated areas, to Gibbstown where it would be loaded on ships for export to nations overseas.

“There are a lot of people that live in the Delaware River watershed, between Gibbstown and Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, where this gas is fracked,” says van Rossum. “We know from experts that it’s very dangerous to transport gas that way, especially since the railcars still operate under 50-year-old standards. The facility is already a contaminated site, what will it mean for the water quality of the Delaware River? LNG ships going up and down the river would be another hazard for species like the Atlantic sturgeon.”

“New Jersey is a beautiful state,” says van Rossum. “It has been a leader on so many environmental fronts. It now has the opportunity to be the first state to pass a modern-day Green Amendment and help lead our national movement.”

She notes that any New Jersey resident can get involved. The Green Amendments for the Generations website, forthegenerations.org, where the book is also available, provides many paths to learn more and a forum to voice one’s support for the passage of a Green Amendment in New Jersey.

While safeguarding the Delaware River watershed is her primary role, van Rossum is also an itinerant environmentalist. If you look at her monthly calendar on the Delawareriverkeeper.org or forthegenerations.org websites, you will see that it is filled with webinars and virtual speaking engagements across the country, which she would normally do in person. She is particularly excited about her alliance with activists in New Mexico interested in advancing a Green Amendment in their state, where the fossil fuel industry reigns supreme.

“The level of positive energy is off the charts,” she says. “Every conversation ends with ‘what can I do to make this happen now?’ The fossil fuel industry is sucking up and contaminating the limited amounts of water. Indigenous communities [Native Americans] are being particularly hard hit. The heavy bootprint of the fossil fuel industry is a primary driver for their interest in a Green Amendment.”

In Vermont, Senator Christopher Bray, impressed by van Rossum’s presentation, has taken the lead, issuing a Green Amendment proposal in February 2020. Coincidentally, her 23-year-old daughter, Anneke, a Vermont Law School student, is leading the grassroots campaign.

I jokingly suggested she might want to think about cloning herself. Van Rossum is bent on securing Green Amendments in all 50 states, leading to a national movement for a federal Green Amendment. She has also inspired Green Amendment proposals in New York, West Virginia, and Maryland.

When asked about how her interest in the environment began, van Rossum, who grew up in Radnor, Pennsylvania, says, “I often played in the creek near my home, and my mom didn’t mind that I was always bringing home wounded animals. She also instilled in me the sense of what is right versus what is wrong: when you see an injustice, you intervene. Nature does not have a voice, so it is up to us to protect it.”

There is no lack of injustice, or energy, in Maya van Rossum. Wherever she speaks, she says she gets the same reaction.

“People become excited about the idea that a Green Amendment can involve them in the decision-making process in the beginning, where they have the greatest impact — before pollution and any other environmental harm occur,” she says. “The reality that they are the ones that can drive that change by advancing a Green Amendment, that the power is genuinely with the people — they’re excited by that.”