How Do You Hold Government Accountable for Deadly Pollution When They are Complying with the Law?

Maya van Rossum
5 min readMay 17, 2018


Including Rolling Back Regulations, Failing to Regulate, and Hiding the Science That Demonstrates Human Health Harms?

Community Impacted by PFC Contamination Turns Out For Answers

Across the nation the Army, the Navy and industries have been using deadly, human made chemicals, known as PFCs for a variety of uses. The problem? These chemicals are now known to be contaminating drinking water supplies of tens of millions of people across the nation, bringing life-threatening and health-harming effects directly into people’s homes and lives. This has not just been happening under the watchful eye of government, but with the full blessing of both government and the law. In fact, governments across the country have sanctioned the ongoing use of these dangerous chemicals despite the contamination of drinking water supplies in 27 states across the nation: government has not prohibited their use, has not meaningfully regulated their use, and has even been playing cover-up with the data that would spark public outrage and call for swift and firm action to prevent its ongoing use and to mandate clean up of the contaminated water supplies. (For a second link on the recent revelations about Trump interference in advancing stronger protections find link here.)

So what is a person or community to do if Government is allowing, causing and even intentionally advancing pollution and environmental degradation that is devastating their health and lives? How can we hold them accountable? One important way is through passage of Green Amendments, constitutional environmental rights provisions that would force government to act to prevent such harms and work to fix it when it does happen. The plight of communities contaminated with PFCs is a perfect example of why constitutional recognition and protection of environmental rights as inalienable and fundamental is so essential.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC), are human made chemicals linked to serious human health harms, including cancers such as kidney and testicular cancer, reproductive and developmental issues, elevated cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, and other detrimental human health conditions.[1] PFCs come in a variety of forms depending on their actual chemical structure — among them are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA). While the different forms have differing levels of toxicity, they are all dangerous to human health.

PFCs have been manufactured by industry to create non-stick surfaces on pans, nonstick papers such as food containers, stain resistant and water resistant fabric, and other commonly used products. The US Army and Navy have used a form of PFCs in fire fighting foams used prolifically on their military bases in practice drills and to respond to emergency fires. As a result of the government’s and industries’ ubiquitous use of PFCs (including PFOS, PFOA, PFNA) drinking water in nearly two dozen states from east coast to west coast have been contaminated.

While the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level for some PFCs, e.g. PFOA and PFOS, they have not set a mandatory federal drinking water standard. The EPA’s health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS is 70 ppt singly or in combination. But science coming out of the state of New Jersey, and even within federal government agencies, makes clear that a far more stringent standard is necessary. New Jersey, after tremendous pressure from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and impacted community members, is finally considering mandating statewide testing of all drinking water supplies to look for contamination by PFOA and/or PFNA. In addition it is in the process of considering passage of state drinking water standards set at 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 13 parts per trillion for PFNA. Such a proposal speaks volumes given that it was first advanced under the Christie Administration who were not known for their care or concern of the environment. Also in response to activity by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Pennsylvania is now considering more protective standards.

But, it is not just that the federal government is failing to take strong action to regulate the release of PFCs into the environment by either private industry or the Army and the Navy. What is even more shocking is the persistent and emerging evidence that the government has long known about the harms of PFCs, sought to cover up those harms in order to allow continuing government use, and most recently the EPA and the Trump White House were found to be blockading an effort by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to release health limits that are lower than the current EPA 70 ppt advisory level because of the tremendous concerns for human health present with the higher standard.

So what can you do when the government legally allows dangerous pollution to contaminate our air, our water, our food and our bodies, or allows environmental degradation so serious it will change our climate, or cause flooding, drought and/or wildfires?

New York Announces Proposal for a Green Amendment

Among the strongest actions that can be taken to prevent, and when necessary check, this kind of inexcusable incursion into our human right to a healthy environment is through our state and federal constitutions. If our constitutions in states across the nation, and our national constitution, were to include recognition of the right to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment as inalienable rights entitled to the same highest level of protect we give to other civil rights — like the right to freedom of religion, to free speech, to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures — we would have a powerful check on government failure to protect our environmental rights.

In the U.S. there are only 2 states that currently recognize and protect the right to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment as an inalienable right entitled to the same legal protection as those other fundamental and civil rights we hold dear (e.g. free speech and freedom of religion) — Pennsylvania and Montana. It is clearly time for a national movement to change that — a Green Amendment Movement that sweeps the nation.

To learn more about Green Amendments see:

For the book advancing this inspirational new path of environmental accountability and protection see:




Maya van Rossum

Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper, Author of The Green Amendment, & leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Learn more