On June 19, 2018, President Trump issued an Executive Order that declared “the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters of the United States are foundational to economy, security, global competitiveness, and well-being of the United States.” The purpose of this order is three-fold:
- Facilitate economic growth and industrial use of the Great Lakes, including increased off shore oil and gas exploitation from beneath the oceans and Great Lakes;
- Form partnerships between governments, scientists, and industries to better inform decisions and enhance development opportunities for industries in or along the oceans and Great Lakes;
- Revoke President Obama’s Executive Order 13547 (Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes) of July 19, 2010.
In other words, deep-six our nation’s water policies aimed at the continuing struggle to correct the ills of industrialization, oil and gas development, invasive species, waste discharges and abuses of our oceans and Great Lakes. Like a Chekhov short story after the Russian Revolution, our Nation’s ocean and Great Lakes policy has been stripped of any reference to the importance of “climate change,” “environment,” “sustainability,” “ecosystems”, “adaptability,” “resiliency,” and “stewardship” to our waters.
Reports, books, articles abound about the demise of the Great Lakes from industrial and wastewater abuse in the late 1800s until 1969– made infamous when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, one of many such incidents causing millions of dollars in damages. Soon after, Lake Erie was declared dead from phosphorous loading. Congress responded by passing the Clean Water Act to implement a national policy, carried out by the States, to prevent degradation of our nation’s water quality. States like Michigan banned detergents and cleaning compounds containing high levels of phosphorous. The International Joint Commission (“IJC”), the binational governing board over pollution and diminishment of the waters of the Great Lakes spearheaded a landmark Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. and the eight states bordering these inland seas. Along with the Santa Barbara oil spill, these events helped usher in the environmental era, one that has become as much a part of life as water, food, livelihood, and the economy.
In 1978, stories of toxic chemicals in waters and soil in Niagara, New York hit the national news, and soon the tragedy of “Love Canal” fostered a massive effort by the nation and states to make “polluters pay.” How could a canal turned into a waste dump of toxic soup– the list of hazardous substances a mile long, at the time unknown, today on all of the toxic regulatory lists– then be used by a school, and later sold for a 36-block subdivision? In response, Congress and the states passed laws like the Federal Superfund or state superfund laws to make the “polluter pay,” and force the cleanup of the toxic legacy left by industry over the past 150 years.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC, Environment Canada, US EPA, states, and untold numbers of scientists, policy-makers, citizens and nonprofit organizations pushed for identification and cleanup of toxic “hot spots” in the harbors and along coastlines of the Great Lakes, and adopted an ecosystem lake-wide approach to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes and their connecting or tributary waters. In recent years, efforts by members of Congress who are part of the Great Lakes delegation, leading conservation and environmental organizations like National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and so many others, pressed Congressional appropriations in the hundreds of millions to finally restore our Great Lakes and remove those toxic “hot spots” that continue to plague public health, fishing, recreation, tourism, jobs, economy and quality of life.
In the past decade, the U.S. and Canada have amended the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to address not only toxic hot spots, but stop acidification, waves of invasive species like Asian Carp and quagga mussels, nutrient runoff and algal blooms that have turned the western one-third of Lake Erie into a “dead zone,” stem the tide of aquiculture, and prepare for the potential devastating impacts from extreme weather caused by climate change. The States and Congress also enacted the Great Lakes Compact that prevents diversions of water from the Great Lakes, with a few exceptions for bottled water and communities whose territory and water systems cross the basin divide. Most recently, the IJC, courts, and states have begun to implement the ancient legal principle that protects the Great Lakes, known as the “public trust doctrine.”
In 2010, President Obama picked up the momentum to protect our oceans and Great Lakes after the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of which decimated 1,300 miles of coastal ecosystems, towns, quality of life and water-dependent economies. Executive Order 13547 declared, “America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other changes, social justice, and security.” He recommended implementation – in cooperation with states, tribes, foreign governments, and citizens– of this goal for all agencies of the federal government whose decisions affected the oceans and Great Lakes.
On June 19, 2018, in one short stroke of the pen, President Trump nullified decades of dedicated conservation efforts by the federal government, states, tribes, scientists, nonprofit organizations, and citizens to come to grips with the reality of what we and the world face in the 21st century. President Trump has returned the country’s national water policy back to the ecological barbarism of the late 1800s and the last century. He has ordered federal agencies to abstain from stewardship and protection of the integrity and sustainability of our waters and start cooperating with the private sector to exploit them for industrial uses, oil and gas and energy development, and marine transport of oil and similar hazardous substances. Is it now open season for industry to plunder once more the Great Lakes? In the mind of President Trump and his private industry friends it is. They will stop at nothing to push the Dow Jones to all-time highs, even if it costs us the Great Lakes, public health, and quality of life and our economy itself. Trump has called for increased offshore oil and gas leasing and development and energy maritime transport.
President Trump Ignores and Betrays the Public Trust in the Great Lakes
The real question now is whether President Trump’s Executive Order has any effect on the Great Lakes. President Trump’s Executive Order spells doom for the oceans, but not the Great Lakes. While the order may force federal agencies to retract their powers when it comes to permitting industry and energy transport near or on the Great Lakes, the President and federal government have no say in the leasing, sale, and use of the waters and lakebeds of the Great Lakes and tributary lakes and streams.
Under the Federal Submerged Lands Act, the near-shore or coastal zone below the ordinary high-water mark is held by ocean coastal states in public trust. Beyond the near shore, the federal government controls the sovereignty of the water and bottomlands of the oceans, and can, subject to express authority and law, sell oil and gas or other mineral leases to develop the oceans. Fortunately, that is not the law of the Great Lakes. President Trump’s Executive Order appears to be ignorant, at least oblivious, of the legal fact that all of the states of this country became vested with absolute title in the navigable waters and land below the ordinary high-water mark under the “equal footing” doctrine. All of the states bordering the Great Lakes took title to these waters and lakebeds when they joined the Union as sovereign for the benefit of citizens. All the federal government has is a reserved right of navigation for all citizens to travel and engage in commerce over the waters of the U.S. The title and any decision concerning leasing, sale, or other use for oil and gas development, energy transport like Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, remains with the State, not the federal government, and not President Trump.
But there is even more to it than state sovereign ownership. This state ownership and control of the Great Lakes is subject to the public trust doctrine. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court in a case called Illinois Central Railroad v Illinois ruled that the Great Lakes are held by the states in public trust to protect paramount public trust uses of citizens: navigation, fishing, swimming, bathing, boating, recreation, and drinking water or sustenance. States have an affirmative duty to protect the public trust and cannot alienate or lease it for private development or risk impairment of these public trust waters and uses. Virtually every state on the Great Lakes and beyond has adopted state sovereign ownership and public trust in water. After talking with my colleague and friend Dave Dempsey about the topic of this article, Dave, reminding me once more of the importance of history, sent me a news clipping from 2002, reporting the passage by the Michigan legislature of a ban on oil and gas development of the Great Lakes under the public trust doctrine. Governor Engler, in prescient Trump-like fashion, opposed the bill and refused to sign it. The legislature overruled him.
But the legal truth is, the public trust doctrine imposes a limitation on exploiting or risking the Great Lakes by leasing for oil and gas or other private development, except within a very narrow exception: A project must improve or enhance a public trust interest, such as a marina that fosters riparian and public fishing and boating and cannot otherwise risk impairment of the public trust.
Sorry, President Trump, you may have the authority to revoke President Obama’s stewardship toward the oceans and Great Lakes and reindustrialize the waters of the nation. But you cannot revoke state ownership of water, bottomlands, or the public trust doctrine. Governor Engler didn’t have the authority to do so. You don’t either. We who live in the Great Lakes Basin hereby serve notice that the Great Lakes are off limits. The Great Lakes belong to the states in trust for its citizens– the legal beneficiaries.