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Lake Erie Rights of Nature

Policy Details

Policy Type: Policy
Jurisdiction: Local
Status: Passed
Tags: Democratic Process, Public Health, Rights of Nature, Water Justice

Policy Summary

Lake Erie supplies drinking water to 11 million people, and Toledo, Ohio, has taken an innovative step to protect it. n 2019, Toledo residents passed the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” in a special election via a ballot initiative, with 61 percent voting in favor of a measure that could enable citizens to sue polluters on behalf of the lake.

This initiative aims to protect Lake Erie from further industrial and agricultural abuse, which, coupled with climate change, threatens irreversible damage. As we know, Black people suffer the worst from these impacts. The Black population in Toledo, Ohio is the second largest racial demographic at 13% of the population.

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR), established by the people of Toledo recognizes Lake Erie and its watershed as a vital ecosystem essential for the health, drinking water, and survival of millions.

According to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which assisted in drafting the amendment, the LEBOR was the first law in the U.S. to recognize the rights of an entire specific ecosystem. This legislation was driven by local advocates from Toledoans for Safe Water, with support from CELDF.

The ballot measure would have amended the city’s charter to recognize Lake Erie’s right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The objective of granting the lake legal rights is to enable activists to identify major polluters and file lawsuits to halt the pollution, which disproportionately impacts Black people.

Drewes Farms, an agricultural company, swiftly contested the new legislation by filing a lawsuit against Toledo the day after the election. Ohio then joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. U.S. District Judge Zouhary ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that the LEBOR was unconstitutionally vague and that it exceeded Toledo’s municipal authority. However, the swift response is a testament to the power of this type of legislation.

Unfortunately, the U.S. District Court Northern District of Ohio on Feb. 27, 2020 struck down the Lake Erie Bill of Rights on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally vague.

In his ruling, Judge Jack Zouhary highlighted the flaws in laws that “may ensnare the innocent by failing to give clear warning” and “encourage arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.”

Despite the failure of LEBOR, Tish O’Dell, an organizer from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, dismissed the notion that she and other grassroots organizers had wasted their time and resources on the initiative. “Absolutely not,” she asserted. “When LEBOR passed initially, it was a groundbreaking event. This ruling only highlights how the system is designed to protect corporate interests and harm the environment. It exposes the true role of the government, particularly when the attorney general’s office claims to be protecting the lake legally. It’s absurd—they’re issuing permits that allow corporations to pollute the lake. It’s time to act morally and justly for once.”

Several members of Toledoans for Safe Water were invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. These volunteers continue to receive calls from media and other communities interested in replicating LEBOR in their own areas. While policies like RoN struggle to succeed due to political climate and resistance to regenerative policies, they are an important tool for building momentum towards Just Transition and Black Liberation, and so it will be analyzed below in hopes for future advocacy.


Does the policy solution re-distribute power from mainstream institutions to impacted Black community?   

This policy would have allowed  the city of Toledo or any resident to enforce these rights through the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, with violators liable for litigation costs. It further would have allowed for penalties, stating that corporations or governments violating these laws can face maximum fines under state law for each offense, with each day constituting a separate violation. It also enforced Strict Liability which states that entities violating the Lake Erie Ecosystem’s rights are strictly liable for all resulting harm. The scope of impact on the Black community would need further investigation.

Does this policy address needs impacting diverse groups within Black communities (Black femmes, Black LGBTQ+ communities, Black immigrants, people in poverty, differently abled, people impacted by justice system)? If so, how?  

More information is required to make an accurate assessment about the impact this could have on diverse groups within Black communities.

Does this policy provide more decision-making power at the hands of Black communities?  

This policy would have established the Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment which stated that Toledo residents have the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes a healthy Lake Erie ecosystem.  The policy also included the Right of Local Community Self-Government which stated that Toledo residents have the right to self-governance in their local community, ensuring their human, civil, and collective rights are protected. The scope of how this policy would’ve impacted Black residents requires further research.

Does the policy undermine extractive economies like capitalism and restore community power around a local and regenerative economy/ primary production? 

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights represents a transformative approach to environmental protection by granting legal rights to natural entities. This framework ensures the prioritization of ecological health over industrial and corporate interests, fostering sustainable governance and community empowerment. This policy does undermine extractive economies by giving rights to Lake Erie ecosystem, affirming Lake Erie and its watershed possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. This includes all natural water features, communities of organisms, soil, and terrestrial and aquatic sub-ecosystems. Any damage to the lake would have been measured by restoration costs, with funds used exclusively for ecosystem restoration. The policy made it unlawful for any corporation or government to violate these rights. Any permits or authorizations that contravene these rights are invalid within Toledo. Furthermore, this policy moved away from the anthropogenic worldviews by giving the lake Self-Executing Rights which states that the lakes rights are inherent, fundamental, and unalienable, enforceable without the need for further legislation.

Does the policy repair past harm and uphold civil and human rights, health and environmental protections? 

This policy could have repaired past harms because it established a Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment stating that Toledo residents have the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes a healthy Lake Erie ecosystem.

Summary completed with the support of https://celdf.org/2019/02/rights-of-lake-erie/

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