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Federal judge blocks measure giving Lake Erie legal rights

Lake Erie
Posted at 12:59 PM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 12:59:37-05

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — An unusual ballot measure approved by voters in Ohio’s fourth-largest city to give legal rights to Lake Erie has been struck down by a federal judge.

A coalition of environmental groups had led the effort in Toledo as a way to add new protections for Lake Erie by allowing people to file lawsuits on its behalf.

But U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary said the measure was unconstitutionally vague and exceeded the power of municipal government in Ohio. He said its supporters had the well-intentioned goal of protecting the lake, while adding that his decision issued Thursday was “not a close call.”

Environmental groups rallied behind the Lake Erie Bill of Rights because of their concerns about the persistent toxic algae blooms in the lake’s western basin that are a threat to drinking water and the lake’s overall health. Much of the pollution feeding the algae is runoff from fertilizer that flows into the lake through tributaries.

The farm industry, though, opposed the measure because it could have opened the door for lawsuits that would force them to make costly changes to the way they farm.

A fifth-generation farm family in Wood County sued the city of Toledo to overturn the measure a day after voters approved it a year ago.

The family said in its lawsuit that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was an assault on the fundamental rights of farmers in the region.

Toledo Law Director Dale Emch said the city is reviewing the decision after aggressively defending the measure.

“We understand the ongoing frustration people have with state and federal officials who will not act to protect the lake in a meaningful way,” he said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we respect the court’s decision.“

Legal experts as well as state officials had raised doubts about whether the law would survive a court challenge.

“Let’s save Lake Erie – but do it legally,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. “As Judge Zouhary said, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is ‘a textbook example of what municipal government cannot do.’”

Organizers with Toledoans for Safe Water criticized the judge’s decision and said they hope the city appeals.

“Toledoans must decide whether or not Lake Erie is worth fighting for,” said Markie Miller, one of the leaders of group. “As long as there is a lake to protect, we won’t be going anywhere.”