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Lake Erie Wins Legal Rights

Air Date: Week of

Lake Erie is the eleventh largest lake in the world, and provides drinking water to some 12 million people in the United States and Canada. (Photo: Jen Goellnitz, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The citizens of Toledo, Ohio have taken a major step to protect Lake Erie, which provides their drinking water. They voted by a wide margin to grant the lake and its watershed legal rights, so that people can bring lawsuits to court on behalf of the lake itself. Tish O'Dell, from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped draft Toledo’s charter amendment, joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the Lake Erie rights and other places that have been granted legal “rights of nature”.


CURWOOD: From PRI and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

By a wide margin the citizens of Toledo, Ohio, have voted to amend the city charter to grant the Lake Erie watershed legal rights. This comes after a toxic algal bloom on the Lake fouled the city water supply in August of 2014 and touched off near-panic, as CNN reported at the time.
CNN REPORTER 1: Imagine waking up this morning and thinking, Can I use my water? Can I take a shower? Can I have some coffee? I don't know.

CNN REPORTER 2: That's the reality, though. For nearly half a million people across Northwest Ohio, they’re being warned not to use, drink, cook, even boil, amazingly enough, the tap water.

CNN REPORTER 1: The advisories come after a dangerous toxin was discovered in a local water treatment plant there and that led the governor to declare states of emergency across the state. Even the National Guard has been called in to help bring safe water.

CURWOOD: Toledo has now granted the Lake Erie watershed legal rights, much the way corporations and municipalities have legal rights and standing in court, even though they are not persons. It is meant to allow people to sue on behalf of the lake and its tributaries. The likely targets of such a suit would be sources of pollution including industrial byproducts and fertilizer runoff from agriculture. There was a battle up to the Ohio Supreme Court to get the Lake Erie Bill of Rights on Toledo’s ballot, delaying it past the November elections. Immediately after the special election a local farming concern filed suit in federal court, seeking to invalidate Lake Erie’s newfound rights on constitutional grounds. But Lake Erie is not alone, as legal rights for nature are emerging world wide. Some seek protection for species such as primates and whales, while others protect rivers and entire ecosystems. Joining us now from Toledo is Tish O’Dell, Ohio Community Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Welcome to Living on Earth, Tish!

O’DELL: Thanks for having me, Steve.

CURWOOD: So please, share with us some of the history of Lake Erie. How long has its battle with pollution been going on?

O’DELL: Well, let's see, my entire life, I believe. I mean, we had problems back in the 60s, there were some steps taken. And I know people, they remember Lake Erie, and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, and then they go, well, it doesn't catch fire anymore. And my response to that always is, well, that's a pretty low standard, isn’t it?

CURWOOD: Indeed. Now, 2014, you had a massive algal bloom in the lake, nearby the city of Toledo, and Toledo couldn't use its city water. Tell me that story, please.

In 2014, because of a particularly dangerous algal bloom, the citizens of Toledo were unable to use their tap water for three days, sparking the movement to grant Lake Erie legal rights. (Photo: T. Joyce, NOAA, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

O’DELL: Yeah, the people woke up to all kinds of warnings and alerts. To, not only like a water boil alert, something like that, this was much worse. They said do not touch the water, that it could make you sick, so it meant no drinking it obviously, but also no showers, no washing your clothes in it, no washing dishes. So no water use whatsoever. I mean, and it was almost a real panic. Because unless you've been through that, I mean, you don't know what that's like to not have any water whatsoever to use. And so, of course, people went to the stores and started hoarding all the water, the shelves emptied. You know, they were driving 45 minutes away to try and purchase water, because no one knew how long it was going to last. It went for three days.

CURWOOD: It went on for three days. You just couldn't use any water at all.

O’DELL: Mmhmm.

CURWOOD: So what sparked the movement to give Lake Erie and its watershed this particular legal standing?

O’DELL: Well, back in Toledo, in 2014, the people in Toledo, they spent two years from 2014 to ‘16, the people there living through that were very scared that this was going to happen again. Because every summer we still have algae blooms. So you know, even three days after that, they said, okay, it's safe to drink the water. And you still have those doubts in your mind. And, you know, it's like is it really safe to drink? The government in the two years, what they did, they would throw things like more money, you know, taxpayer dollars and say, well, you know, we're gonna test the waters more often, so that, you know, we can add more chemicals quicker so it doesn't get to this point. Or we’ll put up signs, like at the beaches, and test it so if you shouldn't be touching the water, you'll know that. And, you know, they were like well, this isn't really a solution.

CURWOOD: And, by the way, how important is Lake Erie when we think about the planet’s ecosystem?

O’DELL: Oh, it's very important. I believe the last statistic I saw it's over 11 million people, it's their drinking water source. It's the walleye fishing capital of the world. It provides food for people, not just water. But there's tremendous, you know, other life within the lake. And the ecosystems, that there are different fish, different living things within the lake. So there's a lot at stake here.

CURWOOD: Folks voting in Toledo on February 26 voted to enact the Lake Erie Watershed Bill of Rights Charter Amendment.

O’DELL: Mmhmm.

CURWOOD: What exactly is this? What does this say?

O’DELL: Well, it's kind of trying to put it into law that we need to look at our relationship with nature differently. And that we can no longer look at nature as strictly property to be used, exploited, but that we need to look at nature as a living entity that has rights. Now, a lot of people think that's, you know, a crazy thought, only because we haven't been brought up in a culture that recognizes that. You know, I tell people, well, we don't think twice about corporations having rights. So, it's really not that crazy.

CURWOOD: Talk to me about where else in the world people have decided to grant the Rights of Nature and what's happened in those places.

O’DELL: Actually, it's funny, the very first rights of nature law was in 2006, which was here in the United States. It was in Pennsylvania, it was in a little borough called Tamaqua Borough, and there was sludge spreading going on in the community, as well as other things, and dumping of toxins. And it wasn't like targeting a specific ecosystem like Lake Erie’s is, but it was part of a bill of rights that they were passing for their community that involved other issues, but they had included in there rights of natural communities. So other countries looked at that and said, that's a good idea, why don't we like, incorporate that? So in Ecuador, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, we actually helped them draft their new constitution in 2008, and put Rights of Nature into that constitution. And in 2011, we saw one of the first cases where the river brought a lawsuit against a city government that was doing some project that was changing its flow and depositing a lot of debris. It was the Vilcabamba River, and the court actually ruled in favor of the river, and told the city that the project had to stop, and they had to put the flow back to the way it was before they started. We've also seen this in New Zealand, they've protected a forest there with, using rights of nature. Bolivia has rights of nature. India has rights of nature for the Ganga River. So, it's interesting that it is spreading across the world. There's actually a group in Australia looking at doing this for the Great Barrier Reef. And in Washington State, there's a group currently considering this for the Salish Sea.

CURWOOD: So, as I understand it, this ordinance, this initiative grants the Lake Erie watershed, the rights of nature, which would mean that people could bring lawsuits on its behalf. But what courts would they sue in? I mean, is it in Toledo? Is it in Ohio? How could this now be actually used by people?

O’DELL: Right. And that's the problem with our system. It's very difficult in our system for the people who are affected to try to get relief under our system. So that's the other issue with rights of nature, that it's looking at and addressing, that the people would have standing because they're acting almost as guardians. Like a parent-child type of relationship, where the child can't necessarily go to court and so there's a guardian. So bringing a lawsuit on behalf of the lake, for the lake’s rights being violated. And again, when you're talking about new paradigm-shifting change, you know, and culture-changing things we don't know exactly how this will all play out. But it doesn't mean that it shouldn't happen.

CURWOOD: Um, Tish, how did the proponents of this feel the day after the election? They’ve won.

O’DELL: Oh, they were ecstatic. Because it makes you believe that you know, if you do keep fighting for what you believe in, that you can actually get there at some point. The people are so used to being defeated all the time. That's one of the things too, this campaign, on February 6th, the opposition created this PAC. All of a sudden it popped up and they just, I mean, did a media blitz. So there was a concerted effort to make sure it didn't pass. And the community group was very grassroots. I mean, they couldn't compete with that whatsoever. I mean, they would have to go out and deliver flyers in the cold, talk to people. And they still won. So they were really, really ecstatic.

CURWOOD: Tish, what community is next, do you think, to join this in the United States?

O’DELL: I don't know. I hope there's lots. That's the other thing about doing something new and different. You kind of, like, start clearing a path for others to follow, you know, get people to think about it a little differently. Like, yeah, that kind of sounds like a good idea. Maybe we should try that.

CURWOOD: Tish O’Dell is the Ohio Community Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Thanks so much for taking the time, Tish.

O’DELL: Thanks for having me on today.



The Toledo Blade | “Lake Erie Bill of Rights Gets Approval From Toledo Voters”

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

Toledoans for Safe Water

The Toledo Blade | “Lawsuit Filed Against Lake Erie Bill of Rights”


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