Violation of the Public Trust: The Time Is Now for Decisive Court Action to Stop the Destruction of Lake Erie from Harmful Algal Blooms

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Public Trust Tuesday: Harmful Algal Blooms

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FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Last week, the Ohio EPA designated a thousand square miles of toxic green algae that spreads over the western end of Lake Erie in summer months “impaired.” This sudden reversal came after Ohio EPA filed a report under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Epiphany? No, that opportunity ended with Lent. So why did Ohio’s EPA and Ohio Governor John Kasich finally come around? A metanoia that allowed them to drop the years of delay on requiring any action by corporate agriculture, allowing them to address phosphorous reduction from runoff and climate change-influenced weather on their own time.

Why did they change their minds? Because nature doesn’t wait. But that’s only part of it:  Lake Erie fishing, boating, swimming, beaches and tourism have been severely damaged since the western third of Lake Erie turned into a green mat of algae in the summer of 2011. If that wasn’t enough, in 2014 toxic algae shut down the public drinking water supply of 400,000 people in Toledo, and another 100,000 up the coast all the way to Monroe, Michigan. Now the shadowy green mat of harmful algae is as much an annual event as the corn crop production in the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan river valleys that causes it. 

In 2014, the international Joint Commission (“IJC”) urged a 40 percent reduction of phosphorous levels in Lake Erie within four years; states like Ohio picked this target up but gave it lip service by moving the target back to 2025. Nothing has been done to set a target to prevent impairment or destruction from algal blooms. Professor Don Scavia at University of Michigan has warned that prolonged delay in achieving limits will be offset by increased global warming and extreme weather events caused by climate change.

ELPC Lawsuit for Governments Violation of the Clean Water Act

So, what else caused Ohio EPA to change its mind?  The United States EPA and Ohio EPA were about to get slapped hard by a federal court for failing to designate the waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters” in violation of the federal CWA. The Environmental Law and Policy Center (“ELPC”) out of Chicago and a team of lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of Toledo and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie to reverse the federal government and Ohio’s denial of reality, ELPC’s lawyers recently argued the case before Judge Larry Carr in Toledo. In a move to avoid penalties and embarrassment by an adverse ruling in May, U.S. EPA changed its acceptance of Ohio’s “non-impairment” designation and ordered the state EPA to reconsider. Last week, Governor Kasich announced that Ohio’s EPA has designated the open waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters.”

What does this mean? While it is obvious to the naked eye that Lake Erie and its paramount fishery, boating, swimming, tourism, and its source for drinking water have been severely impaired for years, under the CWA “impaired” means that the State in consultation with U.S. EPA and others must set targets for the maximum daily load of phosphorous from farm runoff and to a lesser degree sewage discharges. The targets have to achieve and assure unimpaired waters for recreation and safe drinking water purposes.

While ELPC will see to it that Ohio EPA’s and the feds’ feet will be held to the fire, the CWA process for setting the targets and enforcing them by rule could take years– years Lake Erie, cities and towns, tourist businesses, property owners and citizens don’t have. Funding is short, political negotiations with stakeholders takes years, and, frankly, Ohio’s goal of achieving reduced phosphorous levels to prevent reoccurring algal blooms for 2025 is too late. Chesapeake Bay was designated “impaired” decades ago, and the so-called stakeholders are still fighting over a labyrinth of legal complications. Are businesses, communities, the public and citizens supposed to suffer billions of dollars in losses and natural resource damages while Lake Erie remains severely impaired?

It Is Time for a Lawsuit 

The public trust doctrine is an ancient principle dating back to the Justinian Codes of Rome and some of the earliest court precedents in our country’s history. It holds that commons like air and water are held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of its citizens. When each state joined the Union, the sovereign title to navigable waters vested absolutely in that state in trust to protect the water and aquatic resources for the enumerated uses of fishing, navigation, boating, swimming, recreation and sustenance–drinking water—for present and future generations. The United States Supreme Court and every state in the nation recognizes the public trust doctrine. The doctrine has standards with teeth sharper than a Northern Pike: (1) no one can alienate or subordinate these public trust waters and uses for private purposes; (2) no one– not private corporations, persons, or any government or political subdivision–can impair or substantially interfere with the quality and quantity of these waters or the enumerated public trust uses; and (3) the public trust imposes an affirmative, high and perpetual duty on government to see that no alienation or impairment occurs!

So, what are we waiting for? What are Governor Kasich and the Ohio EPA waiting for?  The state Supreme Courts of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio–where the phosphorous runoff is occurring– have all recognized and adopted the common law public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine prohibits foot-dragging like the failure to take swift definitive action against corporate farms and cities that are the combined source of this wholesale destruction of Lake Erie. To be sure, there are stakeholders with interests that must be accommodated and balanced, but not at the expense of the damage caused by the continued blatant violation of the public trust doctrine. The public trust standards are the outer limit, these standards are not discretionary, they are mandatory, they can’t be ignored and they can’t be subordinated. In other words, all of the stakeholders are subject to the non-impairment standard, and all involved are legally obligated to comply with the public trust principles first.

How is this done?  It’s straightforward at this point. The ELPC lawsuit or a new lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who are citizens, communities, organizations, property and tourist business owners should seek to declare a violation of the public trust and take steps to enforce it by ordering those contributing to the damage to immediately prevent phosphorous from entering the streams and rivers that flow to Lake Erie. Two years ago, Michigan declared its share of western Lake Erie “impaired.” Now Ohio has determined its share is also “impaired.” If it’s impaired under the CWA, it’s also impaired under the common law of the public trust doctrine. Those who are causing or contributing to the impairment must be named defendants, all or some lead defendants, including the large corporate farms and the Ohio EPA and Michigan DEQ – unless of course Michigan wants to join as plaintiff in bringing this claim forward.

Because the waters are impaired in violation of the public trust, the only question is allocating liability and holding hearings to determine the remedy– the limitations and actions required of all defendants and others to reduce phosphorous and stop the harmful algal bloom destruction of Lake Erie.

The lawsuit or lawsuits can be filed in the same way any public interest litigation proceeds. The court oversight after the BP Deep Horizon spill worked to minimize the impairment of the Gulf of Mexico. In a major settlement, tobacco companies were forced to pay damages caused to the public health in each state.

There is nothing new here, and in fact a public trust case like this would be both simple and unifying. First, the factual finding is done – there is impairment. Second, this impairment violates the public trust. Third, it is well documented to a strong degree of certainty who and what causes the harmful algal blooms. Sorting out and allocating fault is not a barrier to a public trust case, it is simply what a court does in the name of equity and justice to fairly apportion responsibility. If a hearing on the allocation and remedies is needed, then hold it and bring in the experts. There are many in Ohio, Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region, including the fine scientific universities and groups working on the algal blooms and climate change under the auspices of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the IJC.

This is the time to end the impairment and destruction of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie (and elsewhere in the Great Lakes). We have three branches of government. The courts are one.  When the other branches fail or are unable to take the action that is needed when it is needed, our constitution assigns to the courts the role of taking over the controversy, especially when the harm is severe and an imminent threat to public health, property, safety and the general welfare.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

We don’t need a bureaucracy to get around to doing something on its own time through a drawn-out process like the somewhat uncertain establishment of targets and enforcement under the CWA. Why rely only on the CWA and federal and state bureaucracies when a court can take charge, find a violation, set the target, allocate the responsibility, and order actions that reduce phosphorous and stop the destruction of Lake Erie. Ask the legally protected beneficiaries of the public trust doctrine, our citizens and businesses and communities who continue to suffer devastating harm. The time for judicial action and supervision action under the public trust doctrine is now!


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Public Trust Tuesday: Harmful Algal Blooms