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Ohio Grassroots Group Wants A Great Lake To Have Its Own Bill Of Rights


Here's a question. Should one of the Great Lakes have its own bill of rights? A grassroots group in Toledo thinks so. This is after other efforts to protect Western Lake Erie from toxic algae blooms have failed. As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, Toledo voters have a decision to make next week.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: Nobody in Toledo can forget those three days in August, 2014, when a thick, bright green mass of toxic cyanobacteria surrounded the city's water intake in Western Lake Erie. Four hundred thousand people were told to stop drinking their tap water until the mass moved away.

Since then, the blooms have persisted in the summer, fed mainly by manure and fertilizer runoff from nearby farms. Sue Carter supports the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. She lives on the western shore of the lake where the blooms appear every summer.

SUE CARTER: It's full of foam, green slime that you could put your hands through, carp that are gasping for air, and it happens all the time.

SAMILTON: The referendum election next Tuesday would amend Toledo's city charter to authorize any resident to legally advocate for the lake. Experts say it's unlikely to hold up in court. So-called community rights measures have been adopted by voters in other states and then struck down as unconstitutional.

But it's a sign of just how desperate people here are to clean up the green slime that threatens their drinking water - not to mention, swimming, fishing or boating. Could the amendment pass? It appears opponents think so, and they're blanketing local airwaves with dire warnings like this.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What did these groups put in their bill of rights? The right to hurt local farmers, the right to hurt small businesses, the right to drive up our food costs.

SAMILTON: Yvonne Lesicko is with the Ohio Farm Bureau and says local farmers are concerned over the possibility of what she calls nuisance lawsuits.

YVONNE LESICKO: That means that every farmer who is in the Lake Erie watershed - so that's the 35 counties in northern Ohio - are at risk of a lawsuit being brought against them.

SAMILTON: Cyanobacteria thrives on phosphorus. Farmer advocates say they're trying to keep phosphorus out of the lake. But the problem is most of these efforts are voluntary, and they're clearly not working. Dissolved phosphorus flowing into the lake has risen dramatically in recent years.

Tish O'Dell is with Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped craft the charter amendment. She says people are sick and tired of waiting for a solution.

TISH O'DELL: Well, if the people would just wait another 15 to 20 years for our reducing fertilizer in that - maybe that we'd see an impact. I'm like, the lake will be dead in 20 years.

SAMILTON: O'Dell concedes that if it passes, the Toledo measure could be struck down by the courts. But she points out that civil rights movements have changed the law many times in the U.S. and thinks the courts will eventually recognize that the environment has rights, too, just as they've recognized corporations have rights.

Meanwhile, mainstream environmental groups are staying out of this fight, though they share the frustration. Howard Learner is with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. In his view, a new legal approach isn't necessary. He says the U.S. EPA could and should fully enforce the Clean Water Act, focusing on the worst polluters, the large-scale corn, soy and animal feedlot operations - not the small farmers.

HOWARD LEARNER: In the best of worlds, U.S. EPA would step up and say to the Ohio EPA, you have to act now to aggressively reduce the amount of manure and other phosphorus runoff going into Western Lake Erie.

SAMILTON: But so far that hasn't happened, and the center is now asking a federal judge to order the EPA to impose mandatory regulations on farms and animal feedlots. Learner says that would offer the best hope for making parts of Western Lake Erie blue again in the summer instead of bright green. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.