Citizens of Toledo, Ohio, value Lake Erie, and in a recent special election more than 60% voted to provide extra protections for the body of water (about 10,000 total voters or 10% of the population). Now a citizen has the power to sue anyone who “causes harm” to the lake’s ecosystem.
“It’s one of those things if it wasn’t so serious it would be laughable,” says Joe Cornely, director of corporate communications at Ohio Farm Bureau. “Any citizen of Toledo who feels something they see on a farm might be damaging Lake Erie is empowered to sue those farmers, and the City of Toledo would collect the penalties. Of course, farmers would also end up paying all the legal costs for himself or herself and the city.”
In 2014, pollution made the lake water unsafe to drink for a small portion of the urban metropolis. As a result, a few citizens made it their goal to clean up the lake.
“Since then there have been a number of, I’m sure well-intended and passionate, Toledo [citizens] who have simplified the problem to ‘stop nutrient runoff and the lake will clean up,’” Cornely says.
While many states are in a battle regarding nutrients in watersheds, Ohio is the first to skip straight to litigation. Iowa and Illinois use nutrient reduction strategies to voluntarily clean up water, while Maryland has mandated nutrient reduction practices to keep the bay clean.
Ohio already had laws in place to regulate how farmers apply nutrients and who can apply nutrients.
“We passed two pieces of legislations and are, I believe, the first in the nation to require farmers who apply nutrients to more than 50 acres to go through a state certification process,” Cornely says. “There’s training and testing involved, and you have to be certified to apply those nutrients. The second measure passed in Ohio focuses on the appropriate application in the western portion of the Lake Erie basin.”
That ballot says farmers cannot apply nutrients or manure on snow-covered or frozen ground and it precludes nutrient application when significant rainfall is in the forecast. These practices are required by law, but any other nutrient reduction practices are voluntary.
While the next few months could be nerve-wracking for Ohio farmers, there’s hope it won’t be tolerated.
“Even the proponents of this are forthcoming to say this probably isn’t going to stand up in court,” Cornely says. “If I’m a farmer, I can take heart in the fact this eventually will be ruled unconstitutional. The problem is this will take a lot of time and money.”
In the meantime, farmers should be prepared for anything.
“Conceivably someone could file a lawsuit and a farmer in northwest Ohio or any of the 35 [impacted] counties in the state is subject to a lawsuit almost immediately,” Cornely adds. The area that citizens can sue farmers and businesses encompasses approximately 5 million people and 420,000 businesses.