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Federal Judge Rules 'Lake Erie Bill Of Rights' Unconstitutional

Algae blooms on the coast of Toledo.
NASA Glenn Research Center
Algae blooms on the coast of Toledo.

A federal judge has ruled that the “Lake Erie Bill Of Rights” passed last year by Toledo voters is unconstitutional.

The bill would have given Toledo residents the right to sue governments or businesses that interfere with the right of “the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.”

In a ruling Thursday, U.S. Judge Jack Zouhary wrote that protecting Lake Erie was a well-intentioned goal, but found the law was “unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio.”

“Lake Erie is not a pond in Toledo,” Zouhary writes. “It is one of the five Great Lakes and one of the largest lakes on Earth, bordering dozens of cities, four states, and two countries. That means the Lake’s health falls well outside the City’s constitutional right to local self-government.”

Toledoans For Safe Water, which organized the ballot issue, said in a statement Friday they hope the city will appeal the ruling.

"Today we find that Zouhary's ruling lacks the courage needed to create a just system and thriving community," said organizer Crystal Jankowski.

Toledoans For Safe Water proposed the bill as a response to phosphorous pollution in Lake Erie, saying that government entities have failed to pass or enforce sufficient protections. In 2014, about 400,000 Toledo residents were advised to not use their tap water for several days due to toxins caused by algae blooms.

The Lake Erie Bill Of Rights was approved by 61% of voters in a February 2019 special election.

Quickly after its passage, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sued the city on behalf of the Drewes Farms Partnership, saying the law would give Toledo too much power over Lake Erie.

“Let’s save Lake Erie – but do it legally,” Yost said in a statement Friday.

Agriculture and business organizations, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the law could subject farmers and agricultural operations to costly lawsuits.

The ruling is a blow to the burgeoning “rights of nature” movement, which attempts to grant legal rights to bodies of water and other ecosystems in an attempt to deter pollution.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.