A first-in-the-nation “rights-of-nature” law will give Toledo, Ohio, residents the ability to sue polluters on behalf of Lake Erie — if it holds up in federal court.

Toledo residents passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in a special election in February. The law gives the lake the same rights as humans, meaning Toledo residents could sue someone for polluting water sources running into Lake Erie because it ultimately affects their drinking water.

“(This win) is huge ... we had the water crisis and had all of these promises of action, and you see them here and there, but it didn’t feel like it was really enough,” Crystal Jankowski, an organizer for Toledoans for Safe Water, said. This group worked with Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to get LEBOR on the ballot.

Environmental concerns surrounding the lake aren’t new. In the 1960s, factories dotted the shoreline, dumping pollutants, contaminating drinking water and killing fish without much government oversight. This prompted Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Toxic algae blooms have plagued the lake for the last few years. In 2014, around 100 people became sick after an algal bloom left residents without drinking water for nearly three days. Environmentalists blamed the bloom on agricultural nitrate runoff and sewage.

ACLE coordinator Mike Ferner and Jankowski understand small farmers have been doing their part to reduce fertilizer and nitrate runoff, but feel EPA should enforce the CWA for animal feeding operations.

“These Confined Animal Feeding operators have been using Lake Erie as a toilet to reduce their cost of business," Ferner claimed. "They’ve been externalizing their costs of production so the environment and the public pays for what they should be cleaning up.”

Ohio recently announced $20 million in funding to provide grants and loans for farmers to boost conservation practices.

Former Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order in July 2018 to deem the Maumee River Basin “distressed” due to high nutrient levels, but the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission kept delaying the request and a state legislative panel killed plans to implement new regulations.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation has opposed LEBOR since the beginning and supports a lawsuit filed in federal court by Drewes Farms Partnership challenging the law.

Joe Cornely

Joe Cornely, Ohio Farm Bureau

“Any farmer or businessperson will tell you the constant threat of being a target of a lawsuit certainly hinders your ability to do business,” OFBF spokesman Joe Cornely said. “This was a pretty brave move by Drewes to take this step. He’s sticking his neck out not just to protect his farm but farmers in Ohio and potentially across the nation."

Cornely said rules already in place in Ohio require when and where farmers can apply manure "would be thrown out the window.”

He also questioned whether the law accurately reflects the opinions of all Toledo residents because voter turnout was only 9 percent, or about 16,000 of the city's population of 275,000. Jankowski countered by saying weather conditions played a major factor in voter turnout.

Drewes’ lawsuit argues LEBOR violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment. He also filed a request for an injunction to prevent the law from being enforced. OFBF members are meeting in Washington this week and Cornely expects funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to be discussed with lawmakers to continue to help farmers reduce nitrate runoff.

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