Effort to pass Lake Erie Bill of Rights started with citizens concerned about drinking water crisis
As an organizer with Toledoans for Safe Water, Markie Miller’s interest in safe, clean water goes beyond the Ohio city’s 2014 algal bloom crisis.
That summer, the toxins in Lake Erie threatened municipal water intake, and residents couldn’t rely on a water supply from the usual system.
“We are feeling vulnerable from 2014, and if that wasn’t a wake-up call for people to see that we have a problem, I don’t know that anything will be a call for them,” she said. “It’s scary to think that nothing has changed since that time. This could happen again really easily, really quickly.
To Miller, even though so many environmental issues exist, environmentalists have not found enough sustained effective ways to have policies, laws or protections make a difference.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights, she thinks, might do just that.
“It’s everything that was missing for me,” she said.
Residents of Toledo will have the Lake Erie Bill of Rights on their ballots in a special election on Feb. 26.
Great Lakes Now is bringing a variety of perspectives about the issue with these extended conversations:
The Global Movement in Local Courts: Legal questions about how the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would work surround the Toledo election
Targeting the Farms: Ohio agriculture industry concerned about what happens if voters pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights
Miller recently spoke with Great Lakes Now about the ballot initiative and why she’s worked to let voters decide it. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Great Lakes Now: Now that the measure is actually on the ballot, what will happen?
Markie Miller: We are expecting at this point all the big money to come out (and oppose it). I think that even though it’s been a struggle to get to where we are now, that was the easy part. Now it’s the hard part. I’m almost certain that all those groups have lobbyists. We had 15 organizations file amicus briefs against us in the Ohio Supreme Court.
Who were they?
The Farm Bureau, the chamber, the oil and gas industry.
Then who is helping your effort in supporting the Lake Erie Bill of Rights?
In part, the Ohio Community Rights Network. This is a group made up of different communities working on similar issues, not all of them are rights-of-nature based. This would be the first in the nation that is solely rights of nature for a body of water. …
The first one passed in Tamaqua, Penn, they passed an ordinance in 2006. Their issue was they lived in an area that had a history of coal mining. There were empty coal pits that were being sold to store fly ash and other biosolids and things that were leaching into their drinking water. Citizens didn’t want to put up with that so they wanted to ban that from happening. There are others in Grant Township, Penn. that have to do with fracking and injection wells.
Are there other nature bill-of-rights-efforts in other states?
“Hail Mary” isn’t exactly the right term, but if you’ll forgive the football reference, is this ballot initiative analogous to maybe an end-around play in the way your side is going about it?
A lot of that has been built around this idea. We hear all the time the system is broken and we need to fix it. We have the opposite feeling. The system is fixed, and we need to break it. If we keep playing by the same rules, the same politics, the same laws, the same people in charge, we’re not going anywhere and we’re not going to see any change. We’ve had groups here try to use the Clean Water Act to protect Lake Erie and protect citizens here. They were prevented, they were stopped. We can’t make the EPA step up and do that. There’s nothing (in successful environmental activism) that we can pull from and say, “Why aren’t we doing this?” There were no answers.
So maybe the “Hail Mary” is the right metaphor?
For me it came down to “Am I going to spend my time trying and failing and just feeling good for trying? Or am I going to spend my time fighting and trying something different. For me it was easy to get on board.
What would the Lake Erie Bill of Rights fundamentally change about environmental laws and policies?
Right now we have to wait until something happens to take action. We have to wait for a spill, wait for some kind of harm, wait for our water to get shut off, and then we have to ask for help. Then we as taxpayers have to fund a bigger better water plan, put in safety nets, use more chemical to try and protect ourselves to get water to a legally drinkable standard.
What this does is give us the option to speak up before something is in place, to legally challenge it, to say “This is going to cause an enormous amount of damage to people and the ecosystem.” It gives us a little more proactive ability than what we’re in now, which is just “Well, if something happens, you can call on the agencies to come help you.”
We don’t have to be victims waiting for help. We can be the people stepping up and saying, “This is not OK.”
I think it’s hard to understand how Toledo is voting on something that has application to all of Lake Erie. Can you explain that?
If it would be something that would affect the waters of LE, then any Toledo voter could step up and say, “I’m going to act as a trustee or a guardian.” Like for a child. Anything that would be coming into the rivers or into the lake, we could step up and say it’s not OK.
We can act as a resource for those in other communities who are suffering, who are not being heard, who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money trying to fight agriculture of a pipeline or whatever the harm is threatening the drinking water.
Featured Image: Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, at a Lucas County Board of Elections meeting, Photos by Cindy Matthews via James Proffitt