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The Blade – After Lake Erie Bill of Rights, activists seek protections for aquifer

From left: Chuck and Joni Smethurst, of Alvordton, Ohio, and Patty Matthews of Bryan, Ohio, holdup signs during a protest to the Williams County Courthouse. (The Blade/Kurt Steiss)

By Tom Henry | Jun 22, 2019

The so-called “rights of nature” movement that led to the high-profile Lake Erie Bill of Rights in Toledo has now moved west over to Williams County in the form of an effort aimed at limiting water withdrawals from the Michindoh Aquifer.

The Williams County Alliance, a citizens group battling Pioneer Mayor Ed Kidston’s effort to divert water from that aquifer to three Toledo-area suburbs and other communities east of it, is filing petitions this week for a Nov. 5 vote on a proposal to have Williams County become recognized as Ohio’s third charter county.

Only two of the state’s 88 counties are charter counties, Cuyahoga and Summit counties. The rest are statutory counties, which means much of the local government’s authority falls under the auspices of state rules and regulations. Charter counties, in theory, have more home rule authority.

But the underlying purpose of the ballot initiative appears to be as much about trying to keep Michindoh Aquifer water within its natural nine-county region as it is about doing a makeover of Williams County government.

Much like the controversial Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the Williams County ballot proposal calls for the Michindoh Aquifer to be recognized as an ecosystem with its own rights. It also would seek more rights for the people living over it.

Specifically, the charter proposal calls for a ban against moving Michindoh Aquifer water outside its boundaries, as well as a ban against any effort by private industry to bottle it or distribute it outside its boundaries via any other means, such as the extensive network of pipelines Mr. Kidston has proposed.

It calls upon voters to recognize the Michindoh Aquifer has “rights to exist, flourish, evolve, and regenerate, and rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.”

The proposed ballot initiative also calls upon Williams County voters to assert they have the right to a sustainable community, rights against eminent domain, the right to peaceful enjoyment of home, and other rights.

Sherry Fleming, Williams County Alliance chairman, said the proposal for such a county charter grew out of frustration over the soft underbelly of state laws, which she fears would allow for Mr. Kidston’s project to proceed if it meets the legal criteria for drilling production wells, as it appears to be doing with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The state agency told 800 residents at a hearing in March it is powerless, given the authority it now has from the Ohio General Assembly, to stop wells from being sited. Decisions on whether to allow extraction to proceed would be left up mostly to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which — when it comes to quarries and other large users — usually puts the onus on those affected only if they can prove impacts down the road.

Ms. Fleming said she and other opponents of Mr. Kidston’s plan believe once his pipeline is laid it isn’t coming out.

“This is our only source of water, but there is no place in the existing process that really takes into effect how it impacts us,” she said. “It’s been a year and nothing’s happened [on the state level to stop the project]. We don’t want to wait until it’s harmed to do anything.”

The filing deadline is Friday. Ms. Fleming said the alliance has far in excess of the 1,363 signatures needed to get its 16-page proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot, but declined to say how many. The requirement is based on 10 percent of the registered voters who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial election.

She said the petitions will be filed with the Williams County Board of Elections at least a day or two before Friday’s deadline.

The Williams County ballot initiative was written with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, of Mercersburg, Pa., the same group that helped Toledoans for Safe Water write the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

CELDF, which also does work in Nepal, India, Cameroon, Colombia, Australia, and other countries, has worked with communities in at least 10 states to enact what are known as “rights to nature” laws.

It’s a trend that, while growing nationally, continues to raise legal challenges because of how it upends traditional thinking by asserting that ecosystems have rights.

“The people there [in Williams County] see the state’s not protecting them and their water supply. We’re seeing a real pattern here,” said Tish O’Dell, CELDF’s Ohio organizer.

She said the rights to nature movement is a reflection of our changing times.

She agreed it may sound like an unusual way to challenge norms. But she said there also were times in this country’s history when slavery was considered acceptable, as was discrimination against women and minorities.

Markie Miller, a Toledoans for Safe Water organizer who has been a lead spokesman for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, said it’s “great to see this other community use this initiative.”

She was part of a local contingent invited by the United Nations to talk about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in New York on Earth Day.

“Right now, their sole water source is being hijacked by communities far away,” Ms. Miller said.”Every time you’re told ‘no,’ don’t give up. The persistence is crucial. Doing things based on what current law dictates is the problem. You have to push beyond that.”

Mr. Kidston owns Artesian of Pioneer, a company that has filed an application with the Ohio EPA to drill on some western Fulton County farmland for what would be the project’s first production well.

The proposal was made public last summer. He has not responded to requests for interviews for months, and told The Blade in an email on Thursday that he is not doing more interviews until further notice. He said he is limiting his comments to what he enters into the public record.

The alliance took comments from Williams County residents about its proposed ballot initiative during a series of public meetings it held in April.

Mr. Kidston’s plan first surfaced in response to an ongoing attempt in the Toledo area to form a regional water agreement. Leaders from Toledo and the municipalities that buy its water continue to negotiate the terms of such an agreement, which aims to equalize water rates and give suburbs a say in future capital improvements to the Toledo-owned system.

Mr. Kidston’s plan is being eyed by Maumee, Perrysburg, Sylvania, and other communities as a possible alternative to that regional water proposal. It’s been infrequently discussed at public meetings in the suburbs as local councils await engineering and feasibility studies.

The Perrysburg City Council allowed it to be on its agenda at its May 21 meeting, one in which 20 people from the Williams County area attended and six gave brief remarks to the council.

The only member of that board who was willing to speak publicly about the issue was Councilman Deborah Born, who urged her fellow Perrysburg city councilmen to “be respectful to our neighbors and do the right thing.”

“The aquifer is not our best option,” Ms. Born said back then.

Ed Moore, Toledo’s public utilities director, said all parties involved in the Toledo-area regional water talks are still at the table, and the city hopes to have a new Regional Water Commission and water rates in place by January.

He said Toledo’s position on the aquifer “hasn’t changed since Day One.”

“I believe that our contract communities should do their due diligence and examine all their options, but I do believe at the end of the day they’re going to find that Toledo is their best option.”

In addition to a lawsuit filed against the Lake Erie Bill of Rights hours after Toledo voters approved the measure on Feb. 26, the Ohio House of Representatives is trying to nullify that initiative through its latest budget bill.

Ms. Fleming called that a “repressive” move on the part of state legislators.

Staff writer Sarah Elms contributed to this report.


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