The city of Toledo has withdrawn an appeal that challenged a ruling on the Lake Erie Bill of Rights’ constitutionality. Federal judge Jack Zouhary declared the bill of rights unconstitutional back in February, calling it “unconstitutionally vague” and said it “exceed[ed] the power of municipal government in Ohio.”
The bill was approved by Toledo voters in a special election in 2019, where it passed with 61 percent of the vote. The bill states that Lake Erie, as well as the Lake Erie watershed, possesses the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”
It defines the ecosystem as “all natural water features, communities of organisms, soil, as well as terrestrial and aquatic sub ecosystems that are a part of Lake Erie.” In addition, it declares that Toledoans have a right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes a clean Lake Erie. The bill also gives Toledoans guardianship over Lake Erie, and the right to file lawsuits on behalf of the lake.
After Judge Zouhary declared the bill unconstitutional in February, the city of Toledo filed an appeal on March 27, a month after Zouhary’s ruling. The voluntary dismissal of the appeal was filed last week, on May 5.
Markie Miller is with Toledoans for Safe Water, the organization that originally drafted LEBOR and got it on the ballot. She says the situation Toledo is in now mirrors what happened in 2014, when the city warned its residents not to drink the water due to a toxic cyanobacterial bloom in Lake Erie.
“Looking back at what happened in 2014, when we lost our water, I can't help but sort of reminisce about that time now. We were stuck at home; some of us couldn't go to work. The grocery stores were totally empty: people were panic-buying water and paper plates and frozen food, and produce was being thrown away. It was a scary time, but it was on a small scale. And now we’re all collectively, on this global scale, experiencing something similar, except luckily, our tap water works and is safe to drink,” says Miller.
She says many Ohioans are worried about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on clean water protections. She says her group is worried about a lack of EPA oversight, as well as money set aside in the Ohio state budget for drinking water safety.
“A lot of people here in Ohio were pinning their hopes on, ‘what’s H2Ohio going to do to protect our waterways?’ And if that money’s not there anymore, then we’re no better off.”
H2Ohio is the fund meant to protect Ohio waterways from agricultural runoff. In April, the Ohio Department of Agriculture announced that “the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a necessary reevaluation of ODA’s budget for the H2Ohio Initiative.” The Ohio Farm Bureau said in a statement, “the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions to state budgeting and it is likely that H2Ohio funds will be negatively affected.” There has not been any clarification on the funding since those statements last month.
In a statement on the appeal of the lawsuit, Toledo Law Director Dale Emch said, “The city has aggressively defended this charter section, but is not appealing these complicated legal matters during this time of budgetary constraints. The city continues to advocate for state and federal regulations that will promote a clean Lake Erie.”