Very tiny little girl holding a sign saying Protect Our Water!

by Tish O’Dell | May 2, 2019

Toledo’s 2014 water crises which left 500,000 area residents not able to drink, bathe, or touch their tap water because a potentially deadly algal toxin called microcystin could make them sick, started the realization in Toledo that Lake Erie was calling out for help.

For the next 2 years the people tried to work through the regulatory system and government officials to protect the Lake and the residents. What they discovered was that all the regulations and tax money thrown at the problem were merely “window dressing” that gave the impression of doing something. More testing of the water, signs posted at beaches to let people know the dangers of going in the polluted lake waters and voluntary classes for agriculture businesses on how to apply fertilizers.

Microcystin has grown nearly every summer in western Lake Erie since 1995.The algal blooms continue and the “dead zone” in the Lake continues to expand. In 2016 the local activists involved with Toledoans for Safe Water (TSW) decided they had to do something. Using their right to initiative and working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to help them draft a Rights of Nature law (LEBOR) giving Lake Erie the right to flourish and be healthy, a new path was forged for environmental protection in the U.S.

It wasn’t easy. Besides volunteers spending countless hours collecting over 10,000 signatures, the group faced 2 Supreme Court challenges before getting on the ballot. Instead of being on the November 2018 ballot, the LEBOR was placed on a February Special Election ballot with another local initiative. The local grass roots group then faced a brutal opposition campaign from a group that formed on Feb. 6 calling themselves Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition. It was discovered in March after the campaign that this group was funded almost in its entirety of $310,000 by BP North America out of Houston. TSW spent just under $6,000 on their campaign and even being outspent 50-1, won the election with 61% of the vote.

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights became the first law in the United States recognizing the rights of a specific body of water and its ecosystems. Of course the community members only had 12 hours of celebration when a large farming entity, Drewes Farm Partnership, from Wood County filed a lawsuit against the City of Toledo and the LEBOR.

On March 18, Lake Erie and TSW filed a Motion to Intervene in the case on the side of the Defendant (City of Toledo). Since it was the people who proposed, fought for and voted to pass this law and not the city electeds, the people would like to be in the courtroom and  argue for their law.

On March 29, the state of Ohio also filed a Motion to intervene in this lawsuit BUT on the side of the plaintiff, Drewes Farm!

In a quote provided to the Toledo Blade on April 22, “Attorney General Yost, as Ohio’s chief law enforcement officer, is moving to intervene to protect the rights of all Ohio citizens and to ensure that Ohio’s ability to regulate Lake Erie is not impeded or impaired,” Mr. Binkley said.

The state has had the ability to protect Lake Erie all along, but instead they have chosen to protect the interests of corporate agriculture. TSW are wondering why the state who claims to want to protect Lake Erie is not supporting their law and side, as that is what the people want as well-to protect Lake Erie.

It is ironic that while the state of Ohio is attempting to get the LEBOR overturned, the world is recognizing and applauding the law as groundbreaking and necessary. The United Nations invited members of TSW to speak on Earth Day to officials from around the world about LEBOR.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7HQPL7EzvQ

No one knows for sure what the Judge will rule, however, the Toledo activists want the world to know that others must follow their lead. Movements for systemic change and movements for expansion of rights do not usually survive the first time around in the courts of law and public opinion. It is the repeated efforts that will eventually force both cultural and legal changes from the grassroots upwards. “We don’t lose until we quit”.

Currently there is a campaign to raise funds for the defense of LEBOR. https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/defending-lake-erie/

To learn more about Rights of Nature, visit www.celdf.org.

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