Legal Rights for Lake Erie on Ballot in Ohio City

TOLEDO, Ohio (CN) – Lake Erie has in recent years become closely associated with the sheen of toxic green algae that almost crippled the city of Toledo. Now voters will decide in a special election Tuesday whether the lake should have legal standing so citizens can sue on its behalf.

Markie Miller, an Ohio grassroots activist backing the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, hopes voters approve the measure. 

Her group Toledoans for Safe Water has pushed for the bill with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped write it. Miller said she felt compelled to take action after officials declared water from Lake Erie unsafe to drink over three days in the summer of 2014.

With Tuesday’s special election looming, big-moneyed interests have stepped up campaigns to discourage voters from approving the amendment to Toledo’s city charter. Farmers have warned that they face costly litigation if the bill passes and the courts uphold it. 

“What we’re doing is rustling a few well-funded feathers,” Miller said in a recent phone interview. 

For Miller, the fight to get the measure on the ballot has been two years in the making. 

An algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2011. (T. Joyce/NOAA GLERL)

Her group wanted voters to approve the amendment to the city’s charter in last November’s election.  Prospects for the bill initially looked bleak after the Lucas County Board of Elections refused to place it on the ballot. Last September, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the group’s petition to reverse that decision in the case Twitchell v. Saferin

Miller said the same court’s ruling in Maxcy v. Saferin about another proposed charter amendment to keep any new Toledo jail downtown breathed new life into the Lake Erie measure. In that instance, the court ruled that the Toledo City Council has the authority to place measures on the ballot for the February special election.

She said her group met another roadblock when Toledo resident Josh Abernathy opposed the bill at the board of elections and petitioned the Supreme Court to remove the Lake Erie Bill of Rights from the ballot. Citing Maxcy, the court denied Abernathy’s request.  

Miller expects more resistance but said Toledoans for Safe Drinking Water has no intention of giving up.

“We’re of the mindset that you have to challenge the system to change the system,” Miller said. 

If voters pass the bill, it will grant the Great Lake legal rights typically associated with people, such as the right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” It would give Erie standing to sue as a real party in interest, meaning concerned citizens could file on its behalf.

Passage of the bill would provide legal protections to a body of water whose image has been shattered by alarming satellite images of algae blooms.  Global warming and hotter summers are likely to make matters worse.

Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, says that while farmers want to mitigate pollution in the lake, the ballot measure is misguided and “at least three pieces are unconstitutional.” He argued in a recent phone interview that the bill would have “extreme consequences” for more than 5 million Ohioans, including at least 420,000 businesses.  

“It’s a really bad idea on several fronts. I think the proponents admit that it’s unlikely to be held up in the courts,” Conerly said. 

Industrial and agricultural runoff cause the algae blooms, which during summer months give the lake, once better known for its whipping winter winds, the complexion of green pea soup. 

Toxins from the algae can sicken people, kill marine life and make water in the lake undrinkable. About 3 million people rely on drinking water from Lake Erie’s central basin.

Cornely said the issue of nutrient runoff from fertilizers is a complex one and more research is needed to reduce such runoff and prevent pollution in the lake. 

He pointed to millions of dollars the farming industry has spent on research and said farmers have grown “cover crops” between cash crops to reduce runoff. Farmers are also considering equipment that would allow them to more precisely apply fertilizer to reduce pollution, he said. 

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