Five years ago, millions of Americans found themselves in the middle of a water crisis that was caused by chemical pollution in Lake Erie. The runoff resulted in a toxic algae bloom that led Ohio legislators to warn state residents against drinking tap water for several days.

Last week, however, the people of Toledo successfully voted in favor of legislation that will protect the lake from similar chemical disasters in the future by granting it the same rights as person.

Despite facing an opposition campaign that was well-funded by agricultural and industrial interest groups, Toledo citizens enacted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights with a 61% majority.

The law recognizes the rights of the lake and its watershed, and empowers citizens – as part of that larger ecosystem who have “the right to a healthy environment” – to stand up for the lake and take legal action when those rights are violated.

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“It was definitely a long, hard struggle to get to this day, but all the hard work and countless volunteer hours by everyone in our local community group has paid off,” stated Crystal Jankowski, a Toledoan for Safe Water organizer. “We started this more than two years ago and had to overcome election board decisions and protests in court just to get on the ballot.”

The United States law is a first-of-its-kind initiative to acknowledge the rights of an entire specific ecosystem.

The language of the amendment, which is known as LEBOR, was drafted with assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). It is in accord with the larger Rights of Nature movement and philosophy which, over the past decade, has resulted in Ecuador’s 2008 constitutional acknowledgment of the rights of Mother Nature; New Zealand’s 2014 granting legal personhood to the Te Urewera forest; and India’s courts ruling in 2017 that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers have rights to exist, thrive, and evolve.

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“We’ve been using the same laws for decades to try and protect Lake Erie. They’re clearly not working,” explained activist Markie Miller with the Toledoans for Safe Water.

“Beginning today, with this historic vote, the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights by securing the rights of the Great Lake Erie.”

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