Quite a Story: Toledo's Water Crisis and the Lake Erie Bill of Rights
In the movies, it always starts with an idea on the back of a napkin. That’s only partly true with the story that Markie Miller told me about the Toledo water crisis and the movement to enshrine in law the rights of Lake Erie. The napkin doesn’t come in until half way through the story, but I’ll get to that. First, let’s start at the beginning.
How could the water be dangerous?!
Nearly half a million people living in and around Toledo, OH woke up on August 2, 2014, to discover their water was poisonous. It wasn’t not safe to drink, bathe in, or even touch. And boiling the water wasn’t going to help.
Markie Miller lived in Toledo at the time (and still does). She remembers waking up that morning and “the only information you have is, ‘Don't touch it, and watch for symptoms. You might get sick and you should go to the emergency room if you've been exposed.’ But not having a lot of information at the time about what was causing it. And this notice went out at two in the morning. So not everybody got it when they first woke up.”
That was just the start of the problems. According to Miller, “Within hours, all throughout the city, there was no bottled water even available. A lot of it that was there, it was kind of first come, first served. If you got that notice early enough, you know, you got it. Prices went up in some places, so you had to be able to afford it. A lot of people had to go into neighboring states to get it. But if you didn't have those resources, if you didn't have the ability to travel, you were left to wait in a line in a parking lot somewhere and wait for this ration of water. And you know, again, it's a hot, humid, summer day. You're not going to go home and take a nice cold shower. You're kind of stuck, and we didn't know how long this was gonna last.”
The official “don’t use the water” order from the City lasted three days. Trusting the water has taken a lot longer, at least for some people.
Markie Miller (L) and Tish O'Dell (R) (Community Environmetal Legal Defense Fund) outside a courthouse for a hearing on the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (photo by Crystal Jankowski)
“Lake Erie was not on our radar”
Miller grew up in Lambertville, MI, a suburb of Toledo and near Lake Erie, but she never gave it much thought. “I've always lived here. I grew up here, and Lake Erie was the dirty lake you didn't go to. We would travel four hours up north, if we wanted to enjoy the water and go to the beach. I never considered myself as living in a lake area before because Lake Erie was not on our radar. And I think even now, when I’ve talked to people, before that crisis, a lot of people didn't know that that was where the drinking water came from. So, it was sort of a big educational moment for people that ‘Oh, wait, maybe I should care about this, you know. I'm paying to keep this water clean and safe. And I don't really know what's going on with it.’”
I think that’s true. Many of us, including myself, don’t always know where our tap water comes from (or where it goes when we’re done with it). For many folks in Toledo, though, that changed. “It was a time of a lot of tension, because the public wanted answers. They wanted accountability. They wanted reassurance. And it seemed like the people in the agencies that had the power,” Miller recounted, “didn't want to talk about it.”
What some people didn’t want to talk about then was why Toledo’s water was so dangerous that August morning.
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and its western half (or basin) is surrounded by farms, many of which are industrial-sized farms and many of which have been built on swamp land. A lot of water runs off those farms and into Lake Erie, and that water brings with it chemicals and nutrients from the fields, in particular phosphorus used for fertilizer. That excess phosphorus helped cause a huge toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, specifically a blue green algae called cyanobacteria. Toledo draws its tap water from Lake Erie, which in this case meant it also took in the cyanobacteria, which is extremely toxic to people. Miller, who earned a masters degree in environmental science, said that "cyanobacteria is prevalent across the US. It's not just a Lake Erie problem."
“Why aren’t we talking about it?”
Frustrated by what they perceived to be a lack of transparency and action by government authorities, many residents decided they needed to take action. “I think you saw a lot of people coming together, forming new groups, and attending meetings, who were lifelong citizens and residents there but had never gotten involved in the issue, and were trying to ask questions,” Miller said. “They’re like,'Wait, this is happening. And it seems like this has always been happening. Why aren’t we talking about it?'”
Some of those people, Miller included, took action by forming Toledoans for Safe Water, “a few people who thought we're gonna do some interviews, we want to get some awareness on this,” Miller said. “It was just a small kind of pop-up group of people who said, ‘We're going to use art and activism and awareness, get the conversation going.’ And I think in that (first) year, of nothing happening, you know, nothing concrete and seeing a lot of resistance from like the EPA, for example, and from local officials, that got people thinking, ‘Okay, we need to do something, we need to come up with an idea, we need to have a little more action.’”
This is where the story turns, at least for Toledoans for Safe Water. “Locally there was a big push that we need the Clean Water Act, and we need to establish what are called TMDL, these Total Maximum Daily Loads (of phosphorus, for example). And we kind of identified that industrialized agriculture was a huge contributor to the nutrient pollution that we have in this watershed. So that was sort of the main talking point,” Miller remembered. “But I think for Toledoans for Safe Water, we had already lost so much faith in that system and in going to the regulatory agency, that we didn't even want to bother with going down that road. And, there were so many local groups that were sort of using that as their talking point, and that was the action that they wanted. So, we felt confident in saying ‘You guys do that. We're gonna sidestep all of this.’”
Back of a napkin
Here’s the part of the story where the napkin comes in. In 2015, a small group of folks from Toledoans for Safe Water (TSW) attended a presentation given by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), an organizations which is “helping build a decolonial movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights.” It was at that presentation that the members of TSW first heard about the Rights of Nature movement.
According to Miller, “The small group was there and said, ‘Hey, can we talk to you about Rights of Nature and what we could do with Lake Erie?’ They went to a bar afterwards and sat down with the presenters from CDELF, and the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was drawn out on a cocktail napkin and born out of a very casual conversation of, ‘Let's explore this. What would this look like? What could we do?’”
“Rights of Nature,” according to Miller, “is considered a legal framework that prioritizes the legal right of ecosystems and natural systems to flourish and thrive and exist. Basically, it's their fundamental, inalienable rights to be, and to be healthy, and not be impeded by the things that we want to use it for. It's a way of looking at nature, not just as a resource, but as a life supporting ecosystem.”
Toledoans for Safe Water decided to leave the regulatory fight to other groups and instead focus on passing a Bill of Rights for Lake Erie, to establish the legal framework that would prevent the pollution and exploitation of the Lake in the first place. LEBOR, or the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, was drafted into a petition that, if approved by a majority of voters in Toledo, would become an amendment to the City Charter and thus part of local law. LEBOR stated, in part:
“We, the people of the City of Toledo, declare and enact this Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which establishes irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve, a right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo, and which elevates the rights of the community and its natural environment over powers claimed by certain corporations.”
“Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. The Lake Erie Ecosystem shall include all natural water features, communities of organisms, soil as well as terrestrial and aquatic sub ecosystems that are part of Lake Erie and its watershed.”
It was no easy feat getting LEBOR before the voters of Toledo. First, TSW needed to gather 10,500 signatures of voters in the City asking that the petition be put up for a vote. Then, the local Board of Election denied their placement on the ballot because, according to Miller, “They didn’t like the language.” After multiple cases at the Ohio State Supreme Court, the petition was approved to be on the ballot in February of 2019. Then came a bruising campaign, in which the supporters of the petition raised and spent about $6,000, while a group called The Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition spent about $300,000 on opposition ads.
Despite all the money and negative ads, on February 26, 2019, 61% of the voters voter for LEBOR. Later, Miller said, they found out that the Toledo Jobs and Growth Coalition, which no one had heard of prior to this campaign, was almost completely funded by the oil company BP out of Houston, TX. “So, a group that called us outsiders and manipulators, and here they are miles and miles away, spending huge, just a huge amount of cash on trying to get this community to vote no,” Miller said. “It was a very rewarding moment to learn that and see like, wow, you know, there's a lot of money in trying to keep us from getting ahead. And, again, it only justified to us that we were on the right path and just had to keep going.”
A step back, but ultimately a way forward
“Keep going,” however, meant going back to the courtroom. Within hours of being approved by the voters and before it could take effect, a legal challenge against the new law popped up. Fast forward one year and, after a great deal of legal wrangling and opposition from corporate interests and the State of Ohio, LEBOR was struck down by a judge who said the law was a legal overreach by the City and was too vague.
That decision was made in February of 2020, and a month later, everything shut down in Ohio and across the globe because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “So, it was very difficult to keep that momentum after that,” Miller said. “But we still have communities coming forward saying we know the story. We know what happened. We know what the obstacles are, and we want to do this, too. And I think that's where the power of this initiative will always be. That, yeah, it didn't get to where it wanted to go, but it added to that foundation. And it's creating a space for communities to build off of. And that's what's most important.”
From a spiritual perspective, Miller said working to protect Lake Erie through a Bill of Rights broadened the perspective of the people involved in the effort. “We saw that with the water crisis, everybody said, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’” according to Miller. “You start getting into this idea of Rights of Nature, and ‘What am I going to do?’ becomes “What are we going to do?’ You know, what is this community going to do?”
Her environmental work and studies, Miller added, taught her that “you have to do meaningful work in a dying world, and you're not given the tools to actually do that. And so Rights of Nature was a tool, you know. It was a way of saying I have the power to make changes that don't just affect me but are going to affect people I don't even know. And people who aren't here yet.”
As she concluded her story, Miller remembered the words of a friend of hers, Ho Chunk Nation member Bill Greendeer (who died just this past November). “He was the one who said you got to treat this like a gift that gets passed down. And not a material gift but something that you cherish, that you honor. Someone gave it to you, and you know, you're going to hand it off to somebody else. And so that's been in my mind the whole time,” she said. “This is not for me. This is for my children. This is for their children. It's gonna keep moving. And I have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that I'm doing that.”
If you've made it this far, I encourage you to watch the above video of the conversation with Markie Miller, as there's more to the story than could fit in this article. Thanks!