Lake Erie, August 3, 2014.
They will have to decide whether the lake has the legal right to “exist, prosper and evolve naturally”. If it passes, prosecutions will be possible against polluters.
In summer, from space, large portions of Lake Erie take on fluorescent tints. This is not particularly good sign. Of the five great lakes in North America, it is the smallest, shallowest, and hottest. Its shores are home to 13.5 million people spread across Canada and the United States, making it the most populated basin of the Great Lakes. Above all, it is particularly vulnerable to the proliferation of blue-green algae.
The health of this lake is at the heart of the concerns of the people of the Toledo agglomeration, Ohio (600 000 inhabitants), in the northwestern United States, particularly affected by these algae. On February 26, they are asked to vote in a local referendum on a Lake Erie Bill of Rights. They will have to decide whether the lake has the legal right to “exist, prosper and evolve naturally”. Beyond its symbolic significance, this referendum has a legal significance: if the lake obtains legal rights, the people of Toledo could sue polluters on behalf of the lake.”
Beyond its symbolic significance, this referendum has a legal significance: if the lake obtains legal rights, the people of Toledo could sue polluters on behalf of the lake.” A project supported by the Toledoans for Safe Water, a group of residents supported by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). For the past fifteen years, this NGO has been assisting municipalities and communities concerned with defending their environment – for example, the Ojibway Indians of the White Earth Reserve, who have given a status to wild rice to protect it from a conservation project. pipeline construction.
Dangerous algal blooms Year after year, the people of Toledo and the residents of the lake are in a state of deterioration. In 2014, the pollution made the city’s water unfit for consumption for three days, affecting 500,000 inhabitants, reports the Guardian. “Blue-green algae – also known as” cyanobacteria “- have been developing for the past decade, especially in the summer, in rivers and freshwater bodies. When they become very abundant, they form water blooms, which can spread in part or in the entirety of a body of water, “write the Canadian authorities, also facing the problem. These algae grow mainly through phosphorus from urban and rural pollution (runoff fertilizer and manure), specify the Ontario authorities. The water then takes on a green color and its texture becomes similar to that of paint or broccoli soup. Scum may also appear on the surface of contaminated water. It is usually when we start to see this foam that algae become harmful to health: they can cause neurological, digestive, dermatological … or even be fatal.
The Whanganui and the Ganges, legal entities This desire to recognize rights to nature is not new. In the Sierra against Morton case in 1972, William O. Morton, a US Supreme Court justice, stated, without convincing at the time, that nature must be a legal person to sue for its own protection. Since then, efforts have been multiplied in the United States and elsewhere to show that existing laws are insufficient to protect nature against environmental damage. For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted the status of a legal person. His interests will be defended by two representatives, one from the Maori people and the other from the government. In India, the Ganges and one of its tributaries, the Yamuna have the same quality. Any citizen will be able to assert their rights in court. “Thirty cities in the United States have already passed laws for the rights of nature since 2006,” said Valérie Cabanes, a lawyer in international law, specializing in human rights and humanitarian law. The Ohio Constitution guarantees, for example, the inhabitants of the state the right to propose changes to the charters of towns and villages. For example, a Lake Erie Rights Act has been drafted and can be put to the vote of the Electors of Toledo. Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon and Ohio are exploring the possibility of recognizing nature’s rights at a constitutional level, she adds.
Proposal fought on several fronts The city’s residents and elected officials are convinced that the resolution will be passed, but they are also aware that it will be challenged in court. As Joshua Hughes, member (Democrat) of the Toledo Blade Lucas County Election Bureau (based in Toledo), acknowledges, it is “unconstitutional and unenforceable”.
In the New York Times, Yvonne Lesicko, an official at the Ohio Farm Bureau, admits that agriculture is one of the culprits in the lake’s problems, as are golf courses. She adds that the efforts of the profession will take years to produce results. But she fears that this text opens the way for many procedures against farmers. “The opponents of this proposal are the industrial polluters and elected officials who are supported by these polluters. Industrial agriculture in northwestern Ohio is opposed to this measure, as is the Chamber of Commerce, “says Tish O’Dell, head of CELDF for Ohio.
Last week, polling residents began to be sprayed with social media and radio commercials of opponents of the project, grouped into the Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition. “A Columbus marketing company is behind the maneuver,” says O’Dell. This is Strategic Public Partners Group, a communications company that has represented companies such as the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola, FedEx, Bank of America, Ford Motor and the National Football League, for its part. the Toledo Blade.
Change the system “We live in a system that sees nature as a property, owned by people and businesses, as a set of resources that can be leveraged. This vision of nature has led to the current ecological crisis. We need a paradigm shift, considering nature as living entities that we all depend on, “says O’Dell.
The activist considers it necessary to present and adopt this text. “The inhabitants have two options: accept the current situation and watch the lake die before their eyes; or vote and be able to prosecute on behalf of the lake. Of course, if the text is adopted, no one knows what the courts will decide; nor did we know how the laws would evolve, in the area of women’s rights recognition, then civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Either we accept things as they are, or we question them. ”