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The Importance of Protecting our Right to Clean Water

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You may have read about his campaign in the Guardian. And you may have heard about him from one of your friends or colleagues.

“Our waterways and the wildlife they support have been systematically destroyed by poorly planned suburban sprawl. They have suffered in silence and without representation, until now.”

A network of streams, lakes and marshes in Florida is suing a developer and the state to try to stop a housing development from destroying them.

The novel lawsuit was filed on Monday in Orange county on behalf of the waterways under a “rights of nature” law passed in November. It is the largest US municipality to adopt such a law to date.

Laws protecting the rights of nature are growing throughout the world, from Ecuador to Uganda, and have been upheld in courts in India, Colombia and Bangladesh. But this is the first time anyone has tried to enforce them in the US.

The Orange county law secures the rights of its waterways to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem. It also recognizes the authority of citizens to file enforcement actions on their behalf.

Please note: This is part one of the conversation which continues on Sunday, June 13th at 2 p.m. with Thomas Linzey, Senior Attorney for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights (CDER), former Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).

 

Chuck O’Neal

Chuck O’Neal graduated in 1977 from Duke University with two majors – Mathematics and Public Policy. Since graduating from college he has started and managed numerous small businesses, from real estate appraising to local television production. Since 1997, Chuck has been the president of a residential investment company that recycles older homes and rents them out to people with pets.

Chuck has a lifelong attachment to Florida’s natural resources and beauty. His participation in the League of Women Voters has given him an opportunity to put that interest to good use. He served as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and as First Vice President of the League of Women Voters of Florida. His varied background has helped him draw media and community attention to Florida’s water and land conservation crisis. In 2013, he helped organize Speak Up Wekiva, an event that drew 1200 people to Wekiwa Springs State Park, educating the public about factors that affect our water quality and quantity. Later that year he co-founded an organization named after the event to protect the flora and fauna within the Wekiva basin.

Chuck wrote one of the early drafts of the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act. He has worked closely with State Senator David Simmons (R), former Governor Bob Graham (D), former State Senator Lee Constantine (R) and former State Senator Darren Soto (D) on various legislative efforts for the benefit of Florida’s citizens, environment and wildlife. In 2015, he authored the Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act which was sponsored in the House by Minority Leader Mark Pafford and in the Senate by now-Congressman Darren Soto.

Later in 2015, Chuck won the Cox Conserves Hero award as a leading conservation advocate in Central Florida. That award was voted upon by the viewership of WFTV covering eight counties. The League of Women Voters of Florida Education Fund was awarded $10,000 in his honor from the Cox Foundation and the Trust for Public Land.

In addition to leading the League’s participation in Florida’s Water and Land Legacy constitutional amendment (Amendment 1) campaign, Chuck has fought to protect Florida’s springs and aquifers from all sources of pollution. He has worked with hydrologist Todd Kincaid and Springs Ecologist Bob Knight on ways to improve the water quality in Florida’s springs and aquifers. He has also worked with Barry Law School’s Environmental and Earth Law Clinic to protect our water supply from exposure to fracking fluids used in oil and gas exploration.

Through his organization, Speak Up Wekiva, Inc., Chuck brought legal action to stop the ill-conceived hunting of the Florida Black Bear; this following his administrative complaint to block the use of silencers in hunting Florida wildlife. Additionally, he pulled together neighbors of properties abutting state parks and wildlife refuges and was able to help stop the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from selling 169 conservation parcels around the state that were going to be auctioned off to developers.

Chuck has been fighting to protect the headwaters of the Little Wekiva River from plans to develop hundreds of acres of urban forests and wetlands. He brought his knowledge and contacts to the aid of local underserved residents who border the project and face flooding and noxious diesel fumes if the plan proceeds. Since 2013, he has advocated for Orange County and the City of Orlando to reduce the nitrate levels at their Water Conserv II project in the middle of the Wekiva springshed. Many million gallons of nitrate laden water are pumped into sand pits that filter down into the Upper Floridan aquifer and exit out through the Wekiva spring system, polluting the Wekiva River and causing extreme eutrophication of its waters.

In 2016, Chuck ran for Florida Senate District 11 in Northwest Orange County. He has jointly sued to protect the perpetual conservation easements in Split Oak Forest from being breached in favor of a highway through the forest that would destroy the habitat of relocated gopher tortoises. In 2020, Chuck was elected Director at large for the Florida Rights of Nature Network and thereafter was elected by the Board to be its Chairman.

Chuck proposed to the Orange County Charter Review Commission (CRC) in June of 2019 that the county charter be amended to recognize the natural rights of the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers. After seven months of hearings by a subcommittee comprised of a diverse group of three attorneys, a UCF Biology Professor and a retired NASA Engineer, the full CRC voted to approve the charter amendment (which became know as the Right to Clean Water) for the 2020 general election ballot.In May of 2020, Chuck became the Chairman of the Right to Clean Water Political Committee which campaigned for passage of the charter amendment among Orange County’s population of 1.4 million citizens. On November 3rd, 2020, the Right to Clean Water charter amendment passed with over 89% of the popular vote. This made Orange County, Florida, the largest municipality in the United States to pass a Rights of Nature intiative. It also demonstrated that in a time of increased antipathy between the political parties, there is one thing upon which we can agree – our waterways need the highest level of protection: a rights-based form of protection.

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