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Toledo water group collects signatures for 'Lake Erie Bill of Rights' inclusion on Nov. ballot

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    Algae is visible in Lake Erie near the Toledo water intake crib in August, 2014.

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    Teams put their boats into a green Maumee River during the Frogtown Regatta in September, 2017.

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A grassroots community group called Toledoans for Safe Water said it has secured more than enough signatures to get a proposal for defending Lake Erie from future pollution threats on the 2018 fall election ballot.

The initiative is called the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. It is described by the group as a “first-in-the-nation ecosystem rights of nature initiative by the people” to declare in the Toledo City Charter that the Lake Erie watershed has legal rights to “exist and flourish.”

At a news conference in the lobby of One Government Center on Monday morning, Toledoans for Safe Water said it had collected 10,500 signatures, twice the number required to get the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.

A Lucas County Board of Elections official said that agency has 10 days to determine how many signatures are valid. Based on its findings, city councilmen will decide whether to place the initiative on the ballot, she said.

Toledoans for Safe Water said it is comprised of volunteers seeking innovative ways to protect Lake Erie. It said that passage of the initiative will give citizen groups legal standing to sue major polluters on behalf of Lake Erie, even if drinking water is cleaned up enough by the city to prevent harm to residents.

Lake Erie Bill of Rights organizer Markie Miller said signatories used “their right to self-governance to protect the resources we rely on and create the community we envision.”

“Four years ago, we lost access to our drinking water and had to face our vulnerability,” she said, adding that the high-profile 2014 Toledo water crisis “should have been a wake-up call to initiate policies that prevent pollution and harm.”

Instead, Ms. Miller said, past practices have been protected.

The largest source of western Lake Erie pollution is agricultural runoff from farms.

“We need policies that empower the people and take serious action to protect the lake,” she said.

Toledoans for Safe Water said the group’s ballot initiative was drafted for it by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, celdf.org, which has worked with communities in at least 10 states to enact what are known as “rights to nature” laws.

The national legal-defense fund, based in Mercersburg, Pa., also does work in Nepal, India, Cameroon, Colombia, Australia, and other countries.

On its website, it said it began as a traditional public interest law firm seeking to protect the environment from threats such as incinerators and waste dumps, but encountered barriers put in place by the government and big business, including rights being granted to corporations which it felt overrode community decision-making. It also said it has worked with nearly 200 communities on community rights laws pertaining to issues such as fracking, factory farming, water privatization, and sewage spreading on farmland.

Much like another local group, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, Toledoans for Safe Water was created in response to the region’s 2014 water crisis.

It had about 40 volunteers collecting signatures from registered Toledo voters the past two years, Ms. Miller said.

Those collecting signatures included Sara Jobin, former Toledo Symphony Orchestra resident conductor and former Toledo Opera associate conductor, as well as ACLE founder Mike Ferner and some members of his group. Mr. Ferner is a former Toledo city councilman and a two-time mayoral candidate. Several union members helped, too.

“It was really a wide breadth of people involve,” Ms. Miller said.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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