The Ohio Farm Bureau is warning of possible consequences that could arise for farms and businesses in northern Ohio if Toledo voters approve the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, but advocates of the bill say the bureau is engaged in fear tactics.

Toledo voters on Tuesday will vote during a special election on whether to amend the city’s charter to include the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is being put before voters as a ballot initiative, proposes the world’s 11th largest body of water be given rights as an ecosystem free from pollution that citizens would be legally entitled to defend, according to the Toledo Blade.

The impetus for such a bill of rights stems from a toxic algae bloom which caused Toledo to be without water for two days in August 2014.

The Ohio Farm Bureau is now actively speaking against the ballot initiative, and says the Lake Erie Bill of Rights would allow residents of Toledo to file suit on the Lake’s behalf against any business in the Lake Erie Watershed. The measure would give Lake Erie and its watershed legal standing in court and allow any Toledo citizen to represent the lake and file lawsuits on its behalf, according to the Farm Bureau.

If passed, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights could have consequences for the entire state, but particularly 35 counties in northern Ohio including Ashtabula County, Joe Cornely, a spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau said. The bill of rights puts farmers, businesses and government entities at risk within the Lake Erie Watershed, he said.

The Ohio Farm Bureau is making all of its membership aware of the potential bill of rights, and is actively working in Toledo to encourage members who live in Toledo to talk to others and encourage them to vote against the measure.

“This would encompass the Lake Erie Watershed which includes 35 counties in Ohio and portions of Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and Canada,” Cornely said.

Similar initiatives have been tried in other parts of the state at least six times and voters have rejected them every time. The issue isn’t likely to go away any time soon, Cornely said.

“We are looking long term to some way resolve the prospect of this just being a never-ending process,” he said. “We don’t know what that is yet, but to constantly have the threat of lawsuits hanging over businesses, farms and governments is not healthy. It’s a job killer.”

Such a bill of rights could cause economic harm to farmers who have to choose between spending money on their business needs or stocking money away to defend themselves against potential lawsuits, Cornely said.

The bill of rights could also divert money from the Ohio Farm Bureau and others who have been spending millions of dollars since 2014 to research what is causing an excess of phosphorous runoff that led to the algae bloom, he said, and solutions to prevent another bloom or disruption to water service.

Stopping nutrient runoff is a very complex issue, Cornely said, and work has been ongoing for nearly five years to determine how and why phosphorous is leaving the ground and how to prevent it. Answers are being developed and farmers are starting to implement some new practices as the research unfolds, Cornely said.

“Water quality has always been a priority, but on Aug. 2, 2014 it went screaming to the top of the priority list,” Cornely said. “No one should have to go through what the people of Toledo did, and farmers recognize they have a role to play in helping to fix the problem.”

Chris Jankowski, a volunteer for Toledoans for Safe Water, one of the groups behind the ballot initiative, said the idea that people in Toledo will sue farmers in Ashtabula County is absurd. It is nothing more than a scare tactic by those who don’t want to see big business, industry and government held accountable for their part in failing to properly protect drinking water or following laws that are either already in place or too loose.

The bill of rights does not implement new taxes or regulations, Jankowski said, but it will provide a legal framework to ensure that people tasked with keeping things in order with water quality issues are doing their jobs. Farmers are largely not at fault for this issue because they follow the rules that have been set forth, Jankowski said.

However, industries that dump pollutants into the water, and agencies which simply give such businesses a slap on the wrist and allow them to pay fines and continue business as usual, are to blame, Jankowski said. Regulatory agencies are not properly doing their jobs, she said.

The only way someone outside of the Toledo area could possibly be sued is if a large amount of pollutant were dumped into the lake, it could be traced to that source and it ultimately affected Toledo water, Jankowski said.

“This is not aimed at mom and pop farmers,” she said. “I’ve met half the people I’m working with now at an agricultural meeting.”

Jankowski gave birth to a daughter during Toledo’s water crisis, and she said protecting our largest source of drinking water should be a no-brainer. She had to travel a half hour just to take a bath after her daughter’s birth during the August heat. Individuals also can’t profit from any lawsuits that would be filed under the bill of rights because any money awarded would go into a remediation fund for the lake.

“There are fear tactics out there,” she said. “We’ve had more than $500,000 in attack ads used against us in the last week.”

Dave Thomas, who will take the helm as Ashtabula County Auditor in March, said the auditor’s office has an important role to play in the issue. Farmers can register as an agricultural district through the auditor’s office, Thomas said, and it is the same application process as a CAUV application.

An agricultural district status would serve as a possible barrier for farmers from lawsuits by Toledo residents, Thomas said. There are currently seven farms in the county which are in agricultural districts. Even absent the bill of rights issue, Thomas said agricultural districts help farmers who may be subject of suits by neighbors or residents who take issue with the sights, sounds, smells or equipment on roads that comes with operating a farm.

“Creating an ag district helps prevent nuisance lawsuits against farmers,” Thomas said.

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