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Toledo voters approved a bill of rights for Lake Erie. A group wants the same for the Ohio River

Several people stand on the sidewalk outside Cincinnati City Hall. One woman holds a sign reading "Who will protect our beautiful, polluted, endangered Ohio River?"
Bill Rinehart
Members of CROW announced the start of their petition effort outside Cincinnati City Hall, April 18, 2023.

An advocacy group wants Cincinnati to recognize the right of the Ohio River to thrive. Members of Citizens for the Rights of the Ohio River Watershed are circulating a petition to get an amendment to Cincinnati's charter on the ballot. Susan VonderHaar says CROW members want to give the river a seat at the table.

"After 25 years of working as an environmental scientist, after 10 years of teaching environmental science at the college level, I have come to realize that the only people that are going to protect nature is us," VonderHaar says. "We the people."

The proposed amendment would grant everyone within city limits the inalienable right to a healthy ecosystem.

RELATED: Ohio River deemed 'second most endangered' waterway by American Rivers group

It would declare ecosystems entitled to damages for violation of those rights. Tish O'Dell worked on a similar effort for Lake Erie.

"This is about giving the people of the community a voice in some of these decisions. The river is so polluted, and guess what? The people didn't really have a say in any of that," O'Dell says. "If you'd asked any of them, they probably would have said 'No, deny that permit. We don't want so many parts per million of poison into our Ohio River. We want zero.' "

Voters in Toledo approved the Lake Erie bill of rights in 2019 by 61%. The measure was struck down by a federal judge the next year as "unconstitutionally vague." Judge Jack Zouhary said it "exceeded the power of municipal government in Ohio."

CROW member Lynn Hamamoto says lawmakers and courts have let people down by not protecting the environment. "Pittsburgh tried it. Toledo tried it. They were blocked and possibly we will be blocked. But this is not just a suggestion for a mandate. It's a declaration and expression of a vision that the majority shares. We want — we need, we deserve — a clean, healthy safe ecosystem."

RELATED: How contaminants are detected along the 981-mile Ohio River

Members of CROW are hoping to collect more than 5,000 signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

The petition effort was launched on the day American Rivers announced the Ohio River is the second most threatened river in the country.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan VonderHaar's name.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.