This proposed bill of rights means your lake might be lawyering up

Sunset from the shores of Kelleys Island over Lake Erie in Ohio Photo by Becky Swora/Shutterstock

Can a lake have personhood? And if so, can a lake then sue a polluter for treating it like a dump? That’s the question being put forth for a vote on February 26 by city councillors in Toledo, Ohio, which could make waves for all the Great Lakes and plenty of smaller ones. The proposed Lake Erie Bill of Rights would secure the rights of the beleaguered lake to protection from threats to its health and survival, the same rights extended to people.

Local activist Crystal Jankowski is hopeful. She and her group, Toledoans for Safe Water, helped create the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and had little trouble collecting considerably more than the 5,200 signatures they needed to put the proposal forth.

“Everybody went through the water crisis,” she says, referring to August 2014 when Toledoans couldn’t drink the water for parts of three days. “It was a state emergency. The National Guard was called in.” Jankowski was pregnant at the time, and her obstetrician told her to not even shower.

What Toledoans for Safe Water want is a new legal framework for protecting their lake. It’s not unprecedented—among other examples, Pittsburgh extended rights of nature in 2008 to the three rivers that run through the city, New Zealand did the same for its Te Urewera forest in 2014, and Ecuador enshrined rights of nature in its rewritten constitution in 2008—but it is controversial.

Currently, “nature is property under law. Ecosystems are property under law,” says Thomas Linzey, a lawyer and the executive director of Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Rights of nature aims to change that.

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature puts it this way on its website: “Rather than treating nature as property under the law, rights of nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And we—the people—have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems. The ecosystem itself can be named as the injured party, with its own legal standing rights, in cases alleging rights violations.”

Just days before city council’s vote, there’s been pushback to the proposal in the form of attack ads on radio stations, online, and in mailboxes. Jankowski’s group has been unable to determine where the money is coming from for the opposition, but they remain undaunted. “This is not a tax, this is not a new regulation,” says Jankowski. “This is good for jobs. It is good for people. We’re just trying to put power back into the hands of the people.”

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