A Landmark Vote in Toledo Just Gave Legal Rights to Lake Erie

Individuals will now be able to sue on the lake’s behalf.

hiramtom/Getty

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In a special election Tuesday night, the city of Toledo, Ohio, passed an amendment to the city charter granting legal rights to Lake Erie and its watershed. More than 60 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the amendment, the so-called Lake Erie Bill of Rights. As I’ve previously reported, the amendment would have huge implications, in allowing people to sue polluters on the lake’s behalf:

If passed, LEBOR would authorize individuals to bring lawsuits against activities that infringe upon Lake Erie’s potential right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve”—including pollution from farming activities. It would also put Toledo right in line with a growing global movement on the rights of nature. Ecuador and Bolivia already have national nature-rights laws on the books, and similar local laws have been established in Brazil.

But the measure will almost certainly face legal challenges:

Industry, though, has unsurprisingly provided the strongest pushback to LEBOR—specifically the farmers and agriculture companies in the area. Yvonne Lesicko, vice president of public policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau, claims LEBOR is simply unenforceable—because runoff pollution is difficult to trace back to one source—and she argues that it’s also unconstitutional because it would allow Toledoans to sue any business connected to the Lake Erie watershed, including those outside the city.

“We are looking at every possible legal option at this point,” says Lesicko. “We have not made any decisions about how we’re going to proceed [if it passes]but I would say every legal option is on the table right now.”

The measure is part of a broader trend granting rights to nature, but its the first to do so for a body of water.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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