A 2014 water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, that stemmed from a blue-green algae bloom on Lake Erie has prompted residents to grant legal status to the lake that provides water to 12 million U.S. and Canadian residents.
In a special-called election Tuesday, residents voted 61-39 to pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights referendum, which allows the people of Toledo to act as guardians of the lake and provides the platform to sue polluters for cleanup costs, according to the Toledo Blade.
Not everyone is happy with the decision, however. Critics say the measure is anti-business. A day after the initiative passed, a lawsuit was filed by attorneys representing Drewes Farms Partnership of Custar, Ohio. The 28-page complaint calls the measure “unconstitutional and unlawful” and demands it be thrown out, the Blade also reported.
In August 2014, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, was detected in one of the city’s water treatment facilities. City officials warned Toledo’s 500,000-plus residents to refrain from drinking unboiled water until the city cleared it for consumption. Many suburbs were also affected by the three-day water crisis.
Harmful algal blooms come from the runoff from nearby farms and ordinary neighborhoods that contain human waste and fertilizers. Nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as other nutrients in the polluted runoff, can act like fertilizer for the algae, creating large and extensive blooms.
According to the lawsuit, Drewes Farms is suing because it believes it is being exposed to “massive liability” and financial risk because it “can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed,” the Blade reports.
“If Drewes Farms cannot fertilize its fields, it will be unable to survive economically,” the lawsuit states. “Drewes Farms must soon begin fertilizing its fields in March or April for this growing season.”
Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement that “Farm Bureau members are disappointed with the results of the LEBOR vote.”
“Our concern remains that its passage means Ohio farmers, taxpayers and businesses now face the prospect of costly legal bills fighting over a measure that likely will be found unconstitutional and unenforceable,” he wrote.
Markie Miller heads the Toledoans for Safe Water, one of two environmental groups behind the initiative. She told the Blade that whatever the outcome of the lawsuit and others that might follow, the organization is “proud of what we’ve done.”
She noted that the group’s decision to push for the referendum was because they were “so tired of the inaction we’ve seen.”
“We don’t quit,” she said. “We’ve started a new conversation not only here but all over the world.”
If ingested, water contaminated with toxic cyanobacteria can cause nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, acute liver failure, according to Florida’s FWCC. While there have been no documented cases of anyone becoming ill from drinking water containing these toxins, it remains a concern.
The Centers for Disease Control says coming in direct contact with the algae can cause a rash and some research indicates a link between long-term inhalation of toxic algae fumes and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.