Rural America

Tuesday, Mar 3, 2020, 6:13 am

As I Write This, You Are Dying: A Letter to Lake Erie

By Markie Miller

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This true-color photo shows a harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie harmful in August 2017.   Photo by Zachary Haslick, Aerial Associates Photography / NOAA

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 27, a federal judge overturned the "Lake Erie Bill of Rights," a law passed by voters in Toledo, Ohio last year in response to pollution, which caused an algae bloom in 2014 that poisoned the city's drinking water. Markie Miller, an organzier with Toledoans for Safe Water, which advocates for Lake Erie's rights, wrote the following letter the night before a court hearing on the law.

Dear Lake Erie,

As I write this, you are dying.

I am searching for the right words – of comfort, inspiration, even acceptance – because all you ever seem to receive is an “I’m sorry.” An apology, no matter how sincere, feels hollow and cold. It will not bring you redemption or peace.

You have sustained me for 30 years through your constant and selfless presence. Yet it was not until you were sick that I fully understood the quality of life you were capable of providing.

I have watched you more closely since that time. I keep my distance, respecting the condition you are in, and observe the decline of your allure from the Toledo shoreline. Your appearance is always calm and subtle, despite your pain. Aggressive waves do not break against your western bays unless encouraged by the wind. Yet, this characterization is misleading. We forget you are not always so tame and soft-spoken – in fact, you can be fierce, powerful, and free.

I caught a glimpse of your sickness in 2014 – but your screams were muffled by our own concerns and fears. I cannot justify any further silence. You undergo endless monitoring and testing, but it’s done with an inherent disregard for your life.

Your “caretakers” claim ownership of you as an excuse to throw money at you in exchange for your services – and silence. Can they really not see that the rhythmic dance of your waves along the shore has grown weary, heavy with the flesh of dead fish, void of the life and recreation that adorns the beaches and open waters of your sisters? I want to say they are ignorant of your pain, but I know better.

How long can I enable this abusive relationship without guilt?

There will be no chance of defending your memory. At your end, we will soon follow. The severity of that situation sits heavy on my shoulders and deep within my gut. I have fought hard for your rights without always realizing how much they reflect my own.

I am sorry. I promise this sorrow is fleeting – it has served me as a moment of rest. I understand your desire to be seen as stoic and brave. Damsel in distress does not suit you – a quality you have passed on to those you sustain. I likely will not weep for your loss. If that day comes, I will be too exhausted from this fight to shed tears of sorrow.

In your revival, we will find life; in your death, we will find only blame. Blame for our misguided obedience and trust in a system of law that upholds injustice, legalizes your abuse, and has ensnared us with a false illusion of representation.

Today I feel burdened with knowledge, but tomorrow I will feel empowered by truth.

I will always fight for your survival, never your memory.

With devotion,


Markie Miller is a lead organizer and spokesperson for Toledoans for Safe Water and played a key role in drafting and passing the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in 2019. Her work and passion for the Rights of Nature and Community Rights Movements was catalyzed when nearly 500,000 people in and around her community of Toledo, Ohio lost access to clean and safe drinking water for three days in 2014 due to a toxic algal bloom in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Markie is also a volunteer board member of the Ohio and National Community Rights Networks. She is the Foundation and Donor Outreach Assistant for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

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