This scrappy enviro can take punch — literally

By Hannah Northey | 01/05/2018 01:11 PM EST

Maya van Rossum — best known as the Delaware Riverkeeper — has been punched and verbally abused while fighting hydraulic fracturing and pipeline projects in Pennsylvania.

Maya van Rossum, better known as the "Delaware Riverkeeper," is a scrappy legal crusader traveling the country to change environmental law.

Maya van Rossum, better known as the "Delaware Riverkeeper," is a scrappy legal crusader traveling the country to change environmental law. van Rossum/Special to E&E News

Maya van Rossum — best known as the Delaware Riverkeeper — has been punched and verbally abused while fighting hydraulic fracturing and pipeline projects in Pennsylvania.

But the 51-year-old activist and attorney won’t back down.

The Bryn Mawr, Pa., resident’s now taking her fight beyond the 13,539-square-mile Delaware River watershed and the sprawling Marcellus Shale play.


In recent months, van Rossum has been traveling coast to coast by train or Chevy Volt to sign books, speak at colleges and meet with lawmakers — all in the hopes of building a grass-roots movement focused on weaving environmental protections into state constitutions and ultimately generating support for a federal amendment.

That amendment, she insists, would give advocates the ability to thwart or fight the rollback of environmental rules.

"Many of the things that Donald Trump is doing to abuse our environment and endanger our communities could be challenged if we had a federal constitutional provision in the Bill of Rights protecting and recognizing the inalienable rights to a healthy environment," van Rossum said.

A mother of two and graduate of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at New York’s Pace University, van Rossum’s philosophy — and new book, "The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment" — pulls lessons from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision four years ago to strike down an industry-backed measure that would have allowed oil and gas development in nearly every corner of the Keystone State. Central to the case was a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution that includes a unique "environmental rights" amendment (Energywire, Nov. 25, 2014).

She is fighting to write that language in the constitution of every state. So far, proposals have cropped up in New Jersey and New York.

Van Rossum recently spoke to E&E News about advocacy, a rekindled romance and her aborted career in the shoe business.

What’s the rough side of environmental advocacy?

I’ve been chased around my car, I’ve been punched, I’ve had my hair pulled. I’ve had my home threatened with having oil from the Delaware River deepening project dumped on my front yard. I’ve been encircled by a group of very large men in a very dark parking lot trying to be threatening. I’ve been called many names.

Any regrets?

There is no downside. I go to bed every single night feeling good about how I spent my day, knowing everything I did was to protect the Earth for the people here today and generations yet to be born.

What was your biggest legal victory?

The Act 13 case that breathes life into Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment. Not only did it give to the people of Pennsylvania a long-ignored right to a healthy environment, but it really put me on this path of thinking through a green amendment movement and trying to get a constitutional recognition of the inalienable right to a healthy environment in every state in the nation.

My hope is that work feeds into and results in a passage of a federal constitutional provision.

What are the nuts and bolts of the Pennsylvania case?

It was a case challenging Pennsylvania’s drilling law, called Act 13, where the Delaware Riverkeeper Network used the state’s long-ignored Environmental Rights Amendment to challenge a pro-drilling, pro-fracking piece of legislation.

We challenged it as violating the right to clean water, pure air and a healthy environment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision came down on Dec 18, 2013, so just a few years ago.

And your biggest loss?

All of them. There are too many to name. The defeat against the deepening of the Delaware River navigation channel down to 45 feet, to name one. That’s playing an instrumental role in the continuing decline of the Atlantic sturgeon of the Delaware River, a genetically unique population found nowhere else on Earth with less than 300 spawning adults left.

How did you land in environmental advocacy?

When I was in college, I took a contract law course — my mother encouraged me to try different things — I remember going to a professor and asking if there was a way to protect the environment and practice law at the same time.

That’s what put me on my path. I ended up going to Pace, which specializes in environmental law. I went there to be a better advocate.

How did you meet your husband, high school teacher David Wood?

He and I actually dated in high school and we went our separate ways. Years later, in 2004, there was the Athos 1 tanker oil spill in the Delaware River. I got a phone call from a local high school teacher asking if I would come speak to his class.

It turned out the teacher was my high school sweetheart. We immediately reconnected.

How many children do you have?

I have six children. Two biological, one from my last marriage and one from Dave. Dave has four kids. So briefly we had six kids living in our home.

Were you always outdoorsy?

As a kid, I spent a lot of time playing with friends in Ithan Creek in Delaware County, Pa., where I grew up. We would crawl through the little pike that took us under the road. So I spent a lot of time in the creek and in the forest that led down to the creek. That’s the way we lived our lives in our family, you go outside to play.

And your parents? What did they do?

My mother, Marijke, was a mathematician, she went back to get her Ph.D. when I was 5 years old. My father George was a scientist. He worked at Temple University doing biochemistry. He taught at the medical college.

My father was British and my mother was Dutch. They actually met at the beach in the Netherlands.

Any other career aspirations?

I always said that if I couldn’t find a job protecting the environment, I’d go sell shoes. I thought it was benign and I’m not willing to take on anything that would require me to go against my beliefs when it came to environmental protection.

Where are these pipeline fights heading?

You need to change the law. Even if you change a few commissioners, you’re not going to change the dynamic of FERC and you’re not going to take away the bias.

Protesters last year rallied at FERC commissioners’ private homes. Did that cross a line?

No, these FERC commissioners are reaching into people’s private homes, into their lives with the decisions they’re rendering. Having someone stand outside their homes singing songs or delivering a card, you know, I just think it is wrong to equate that with the incredible overreach and harm FERC is inflicting upon landowners in the way of these pipeline projects.

Do you see slowing pipeline construction as success?

Slowing pipeline construction doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped it. It doesn’t mean we’ve ultimately protected communities. That’s not change, that just means there are more boxes checked and more pieces of paper printed.

We need to strengthen the authority of the states, strengthen the authority of other agencies with genuine knowledge for how to protect our environment and our communities when it comes to these pipeline projects.

Would you ever run for office?

No. Then I’d only be working on one state. I really want to inspire communities and lawmakers in every state in the nation.

People understand what it means to have the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, due process rights, gun rights. This would give them environmental rights on par with all those fundamental freedoms.