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CONVERSATIONS: A New Focus Not On Regulating Polluters, But Protecting "Rights Of Nature"

Wekiva State Park- Photo Courtesy Florida Park Service
Wekiva State Park- Photo Courtesy Florida Park Service

By a margin of nearly 90 percent, Orange County voters approved a charter amendment aimed at protecting the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers and other waterways.

90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green talked to a proponent of the amendment, Chuck O'Neal, about the significance of the vote. O'Neal says the victory represents the largest of its kind in a new movement to protect the rights of nature.

AMY GREEN: Specifically, the charter amendment creates a legal capability to bring action on behalf of natural resources themselves. Chuck O'Neal, what does that mean?

CHUCK O'NEAL: The current environmental regimen is to slow down the rate of destruction of our natural world, to regulate the decline. It's really going to take a new paradigm to change that. And if the actual act of polluting a water body becomes a violation of the city and county ordinances or eventually of the state constitution, then this is a way to reverse the process and get back to the point that we all want to get back to, which is to make Florida the Clean Water State.

AMY GREEN: You say Orange County is the largest of more than three dozen cities, townships and counties nationwide to adopt rights-of-nature laws. Where else are we seeing these measures, and how are they being used or implemented?

CHUCK O'NEAL: The city of Pittsburgh was faced with fracking companies buying rights to build fracking wells within their jurisdiction. What they did was they installed into their municipal code a rights-of-nature ordinance that protected their water bodies as well as their groundwater. That particular ordinance in the municipal code of the city of Pittsburgh has stood unchallenged since 2010. And as a result, if you were to look at a map of all the fracking wells and injection wells in Pennsylvania there is a void, a circular void in that state. And that circular void is Pittsburgh and the five surrounding townships around Pittsburgh that followed their lead in passing rights-of-nature ordinances as well.

AMY GREEN: This past spring, the Florida Legislature approved the Clean Waterways Act, which includes language prohibiting local regulations that recognize legal rights of nature. Chuck O'Neal, your organization, Speak Up Wekiva, has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis over the language. How does the language affect the Orange County charter amendment?

CHUCK O'NEAL: We filed this lawsuit during the summer to prevent anyone stepping forward and challenging, to throw the charter amendment off the ballot. Now that it's passed, we dismissed that lawsuit and are pursuing having other communities around the state pass similar ordinances that do not violate the preemption clause. Our hope is that there is a groundswell of communities passing these right-to-clean-water ordinances and finally will culminate in a statewide amendment that allows unequivocally communities to protect their waters, to establish rights-of-nature ordinances and charter amendments.


Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.