Category Archives: Environmental

US EPA allows use of dicamba products by July 31, 2020

When we explained in our last blog post the recent Court of Appeals decision that vacated the registration of three dicamba-based products, we mentioned that one possibility for answering the “what happens now” question was for the EPA to issue a cancellation order that would allow use of existing stocks of the products held by end users.  That’s exactly what happened yesterday, when the US EPA made a final order that cancelled the registrations of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan but allows for movement and use of the products.  Here’s a summary of the agency’s order.

Authority to issue the cancellation order

After reviewing the background of the dicamba product registrations vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week for lack of “substantial evidence” supporting the registrations, the EPA stated that it was relying upon the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to establish provisions for the disposition of existing stocks of registrations that are found to be invalid.   “The Administrator may permit the continued sale and use of existing stocks of a pesticide whose registration is suspended or canceled under [sections 3, 4 or 6 of FIFRA] to such extent, under such conditions, and for such uses as the Administrator determines that such sale or use is not inconsistent with the purposes of [FIFRA]” stated the agency.

The EPA noted that FIFRA does not prohibit the use of unregistered pesticides, but only prohibits the sale and distribution of unregistered pesticides.  The agency noted that without its action, end users holding stocks of the products aren’t prevented from using the stocks without following label directions and restrictions.  And the agency pointed to a similar action it took after a 2015 court order that vacated the registration of sulfoxaflor and a 2010 court decision that vacated the registration of spirotetramat.  In both cases, the EPA utilized a cancellation order to establish terms and conditions for the disposition of existing stocks of the products.

Existing Stocks Determination

The EPA established an “existing stocks policy” in 1991 to help the agency assess how to treat existing stocks of cancelled pesticides, both when no significant risk concerns have been identified and when there are significant risk concerns for a cancelled product.  The agency noted that it considered the six factors outlined in the policy for considering significant risk concerns associated with a cancelled pesticide and reached the conclusion that “distribution and use in certain narrow circumstances is supported.”

The six factors the agency considered in determining what to do with the existing stocks of dicamba products are:

  1. Quantities of existing stocks at each level of the channels of trade

The agency noted that due to the current timing of the growing season, significant existing stocks are present in the possession of end users and throughout the channels of trade.  Stating that it couldn’t determine the exact quantities of existing stocks at each level of the channels of trade, the EPA estimates that “approximately 4 million gallons could be in the channels of trade.”

  1. Risks resulting from the use of the existing stocks

Again concluding that because the product registrations were vacated and the labels therefore voided, end users were not legally bound to follow label restrictions if using the dicamba products.  The agency concluded that such non-label uses would have greater potential for adverse effects than if the agency issued an order regulating the use of the existing stocks. Such an order is imperative, said the agency, to ensure that any use of the products would be consistent with previously approved labeling and can be enforced in order to prevent unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. Surprisingly, the EPA gave little attention to the volatility concerns raised by the Ninth Circuit in its decision last week, and evidence the court pointed to in that case that suggested that even applications by those who carefully followed the label restrictions were subject to drift and damage.

  1. The benefits resulting from the use of existing stocks

Capitalizing on the unfortunate timing of the Ninth Circuit’s vacation of the pesticide in regards to planned immediate uses in the current growing season, the agency concluded that “the benefits resulting from the use of the products are considerable and well established, particularly for this growing season.”  The EPA reiterated many of the numerous communications it had received stating how essential the over-the-top products are, especially with the growing season underway. It also concluded that allowing non-over-the-top uses would result in substantially greater benefits to users and society than would disposal of the products.

  1. The financial expenditures users and others have already spent on existing stocks

Again pointing to the current growing season, the agency concluded that “the costs to farmers are not limited to their existing stocks of these dicamba products, but include other sunk costs made in expectation of the availability of these products (seed purchase, tilling, planting, etc.) as well as the lost opportunity to switch to a different crop or to another herbicide or weed management method.”

  1. The risks and costs of disposal or alternative disposition of the stocks

The EPA concluded that disposal of the existing stocks of dicamba products would incur substantial costs for all and, for stock already in the hands of end users, “may be neither feasible nor advisable.”  Additionally, the agency pointed to disposal or return of opened containers which would have high risks of spillage and increased expenses for proper disposal.

  1. The practicality of implementing restrictions on distribution, sale, or use of the existing stocks

Another option available to the agency under FIFRA would be to issue individual stop sale, use and removal orders to all end users holding dicamba products, but the EPA concluded that such an action would be unwarranted under the present facts because tracking the existing stocks would be burdensome, inaccurate and impractical and that “hard-pressed farmers who have made large investments in their existing stocks may be uncooperative with a cancellation order that requires disposal.”

Final Order

After weighing the six factors above, the EPA concluded that the six factors weigh heavily in support of allowing end users to use existing stocks of the dicamba products in their possession.   However, the agency imposed a July 31 , 2020 cut-off date for use of existing stocks in order to “further reduce the potential for adverse effects.”  Here are the final orders the agency made for the products:

  1. Distribution or sale by the registrant. Distribution or sale by the registrant of all existing stocks of the products listed below is prohibited effective as of the time of the order on June 3, except for distribution for the purposes of proper disposal.
  2. Distribution or sale by persons other than the registrant. Distribution or sale of existing stocks of the products listed below that are already in the possession of persons other than the registrant is permitted only for the purposes of proper disposal or to facilitate return to the registrant or a registered establishment under contract with the registrant, unless otherwise allowed below.
  3. Distribution or sale by commercial applicators. For the purpose of facilitating use no later than July 31, 2020, distribution or sale of existing stocks of products listed below that are in the possession of commercial applicators is permitted.
  4. Use. Use of existing stocks of products listed below inconsistent in any respect with the previously-approved labeling accompanying the product is prohibited. All use is prohibited after July 31, 2020.

Now what? 

While the manufacturers of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan are prohibited from selling and distributing their products effective as of June 3, 2020, the EPA’s cancellation order allows others to return, dispose of, or use the products according to the previous label restrictions and no later than July 31, 2020.  But a few other factors come into play:

  • Some states have already taken actions to restrict the use of the dicamba products, which is within a state’s authority. Ohio has not done so, and instead has stated that it has been awaiting US EPA guidance on the legal status of the products and will communicate options for farmers afterwards.  This means that users in Ohio should keep a close eye on the Ohio Department of Agriculture to see if it will go along with the US EPA’s guidance or direct otherwise.
  • A cancellation order issued by the EPA is a final agency action that is subject to appeal, so we might see an immediate of the cancellation order and a request to stay the order pending appeal. Such an appeal could challenge whether the EPA has the authority to regulate existing stocks of the products and whether the agency’s analysis sufficiently addressed the risks of adverse impacts from continued use.

As seems often to be the case with dicamba, there’s a mixed sense of drama and dread with what lies ahead.  We’ll be sure to keep you posted on the next legal news for dicamba.

Read the US EPA’s cancellation order for XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan here.

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Filed under Biotechnology, Crop Issues, Environmental, Uncategorized

Dicamba takes another blow:  Court of Appeals vacates dicamba registration

Dicamba has had its share of legal challenges, and a decision issued yesterday dealt yet another blow when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the product’s registration with the U.S. EPA.  In doing so, the court held that the EPA’s approval of the registration violated the provisions of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (“FIFRA”), which regulates the use of herbicides and other chemicals in the U.S.  Here’s a summary of how the court reached its decision and a few thoughts on the uncertainty that follows the opinion.

The challenge:  EPA’s approval of three dicamba products

We first have to step back to 2016, when the EPA approved three dicamba-based products– Monsanto’s XTendiMax, DuPont’s FeXapan, and BASF’s Engenia–as conditional use pesticides for post-emergent applications in 34 states, including Ohio.  Although dicamba has been around for years, the approval came after the companies reformulated dicamba to make it less volatile and in anticipation of the development of dicamba tolerant soybean and cotton seeds.  The agency conducted a risk assessment and concluded that if used according to the label restrictions, the benefits of the dicamba products outweighed “any remaining minimal risks, if they exist at all.”  The EPA also provided that the registrations would automatically expire if there was a determination of an unacceptable level or frequency of off-site dicamba damage.

Before the conditional registrations were set to automatically expire in late 2018, the EPA approved requests by Bayer CropScience (previously Monsanto), Cortevo (previously DuPont) and BASF to conditionally amend the registrations for an additional two years.  The approval came despite widespread concerns about dicamba drift and damage during the 2017 growing season.  To address those concerns, EPA chose not to conduct a new risk assessment and instead adopted additional label restrictions that had been proposed by Monsanto/Bayer to minimize off-field movement of dicamba.   Many states added restrictions for dicamba use that exceeded the label restrictions, including banning any use of the product during certain periods.

Several organizations challenged the EPA’s dicamba registration approvals.  The National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Pesticide Action Network North America filed suit against the EPA, claiming that the agency violated both FIFRA and the Endangered Species Act in approving the product registrations.  Monsanto requested and was granted permission to intervene in the case.

The Ninth Circuit’s review

To approve the request to amend the dicamba registrations, FIFRA required the EPA to make two conclusions:  first, that the applicant had submitted satisfactory data related to the proposed additional use of the pesticide and second, that the approval would not significantly increase the risk of unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.  The task before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was to review the EPA’s 2018 decision  and determine whether there was substantial evidence to support the EPA’s conclusions and amend the registrations.

The conclusion that drew the most attention from the court was the EPA’s determination that amending the dicamba registrations for two years would not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.  The court determined that the EPA erred in making this conclusion when it substantially understated several risks of dicamba registration, such as:

  • Misjudging by as much as 25% the amount of acreage on which dicamba would be used in 2018.
  • Concluding that complaints to state departments of agriculture could have either under-reported or over-reported the actual amount of dicamba damage, when the record clearly showed that complaints understated the amount of damage.
  • Failing to quantify the amount of damage caused by dicamba, “or even to admit that there was any damage at all,” despite having information that would enable the EPA to do so.

But that’s not all.  The court pointed out that the agency had also “entirely failed to acknowledge other risks, including those it was statutorily required to consider,” such as:

  • The risk of substantial non-compliance with label restrictions, which the court noted became “increasingly restrictive and, correspondingly, more difficult to follow” and to which even conscientious applicators could not consistently adhere.
  • The risk of economic costs.  The court stated that the EPA did not take into account the “virtually certain” economic costs that would result from the anti-competitive effect of continued dicamba registration, citing evidence in the record that growers were compelled to adopt the dicamba products just to avoid the possibility of damage should they use non-dicamba tolerant seed.
  • The social costs of dicamba technology to farming communities.  The court pointed out that a farmer in Arkansas had been shot and killed over dicamba damage, that dicamba had “pitted neighbor against neighbor,” and that the EPA should have identified the severe strain on social relations in farming communities as a clear social cost of the continued registration of the products.

Given the EPA’s understatement of some risks and failure to recognize other risks, the Court of Appeals concluded that substantial evidence did not support the agency’s decision to grant the conditional registration of the dicamba products.  The EPA “failed to perform a proper analysis of the risks and resulting costs of the uses,” determined the court.  The court did not address the Endangered Species Act issue.

What remedy?

A critical point in the decision is the court’s determination of the appropriate remedy for the EPA’s unsupported approval of the dicamba products.  The EPA and Monsanto had asked the court to utilize its ability to “remand without vacatur,” or to send the matter back to the agency for reconsideration.  The remedy of “vacatur,” however, would vacate or void the product registrations.  The court explained that determining whether vacatur is appropriate required the court to weigh several criteria, including:

  • The seriousness of the agency’s errors against the disruptive consequences of an interim change that may itself be changed,
  • The extent to which vacating or leaving the decision in place would risk environmental harm, and
  • Whether the agency would likely be able to offer better reasoning on remand, or whether such fundamental flaws in the agency’s decision make it unlikely that the same rule would be adopted on remand.

The court’s weighing of these criteria led to its conclusion that vacating the registrations of the products was the appropriate remedy due to the “fundamental flaws in the EPA’s analysis.”  Vacating the registrations was not an action taken lightly by the court, however.  The judges acknowledged that the decision could have an adverse impact on growers who have already purchased dicamba products for the current growing season and that growers “have been placed in this situation through no fault of their own.”  Clearly, the court places the blame for such consequences upon the EPA, reiterating the “absence of substantial evidence” for the agency’s decision to register the dicamba products.

What now?

The court raised the issue we’re all wondering about now:  can growers still use the dicamba products they’ve purchased?  Unfortunately, we don’t have an immediate answer to the question, because it depends largely upon how the EPA responds to the ruling.  We do know that:

  • FIFRA § 136a prohibits a person from distributing or selling any pesticide that is not registered.
  • FIFRA § 136d allows the EPA to permit continued sale and use of existing stocks of a pesticide whose registration is suspended or canceled.  The EPA utilized this authority in 2015 after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated  the EPA’s registration of sulfoxaflor after determining that the registration was not supported by substantial evidence.  In that case, the EPA allowed continued use of the existing stocks of sulfoxaflor held by end-users provided that the users followed label restrictions.  Whether the agency would find similarly in regards to existing stocks of dicamba is somewhat unlikely given the court’s opinion, but remains to be seen.  The EPA’s 2015 sulfoxaflor cancellation order is here.
  • While the U.S. EPA registers pesticides for use and sale in the U.S., the product must also be registered within a state in order to be sold and used within the state.  The Ohio Department of Agriculture oversees pesticide registrations within Ohio, and also regulates the use of registered pesticides.
  • If the EPA appeals the Ninth Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, the agency would likely include a request for a “stay” that would delay enforcement of the court’s Order.
  • Bayer strongly disagrees with the decision but has paused its sale, distribution and use of XtendiMax while assessing its next step and awaiting EPA direction.  The company states that it will “work quickly to minimize any impact on our customers this season.”  Bayer also notes that it is already working to obtain a new registration for XtendiMax for the 2021 season and beyond, and hopes to obtain the registration by this fall.  See Bayer’s information here
  • BASF and Corteva have also stated that they are awaiting the EPA’s reaction to the decision, and will “use all legal remedies available to challenge this Order.”
  • Syngenta has clarified that its Tavium Plus VaporGrip dicamba-based herbicide is not part of the ruling and that the company will continue selling that product.

For now, all eyes are on the U.S. EPA’s reaction to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and we also need to hear from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.  Given the current state of uncertainty, it would be wise for growers to wait and see before taking any actions with dicamba products.  We’ll keep you posted on any new legal developments.  Read the court’s decision in National Family Farm Coalition et al v. U.S. EPA here.

 

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The Ag Law Harvest

Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Kirk Hall

Many people are still working from home, but that hasn’t stopped legal activity in Washington, D.C.  Bills have been proposed, federal rules are being finalized, and new lawsuits are in process.  Here’s our gathering of news about current legal activities affecting agriculture.

SBA posts Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness application.  We’ve been waiting to hear more about how and to what extent the SBA will forgive loans made under the CARES Act’s PPP that many farm businesses have utilized.  The SBA recently posted the forgiveness application and  instructions for applicants here.  But there are still unanswered questions for agricultural applicants as well as talk in Congress about changing some of the forgiveness provisions, suggesting that loan recipients should sit tight rather than apply now.  Watch for our future blog post and a discussion on the forgiveness provisions in our next Farm Office Live webinar.

House passes another COVID-19 relief bill.  All predictions are that the bill will go nowhere in the Senate, but that didn’t stop the House from passing a $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package on May 15.  The “HEROES Act” includes a number of provisions for agriculture, including an additional $16.5 billion in direct payments to producers of commodities, specialty crops and livestock, as well as funds for local agriculture markets, livestock depopulation losses, meat processing plants, expanded CRP, dairy production, other supply chain disruptions, and biofuel producers (discussed below).  Read the bill here.

Proposed bipartisan bill designed to open cash market for cattle.  Last week, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Jon Tester introduced a bill that “would require large-scale meatpackers to increase the proportion of negotiable transactions that are cash, or ‘spot,’ to 50 percent of their total cattle purchases.” The senators hope this change would bring up formula prices and allow livestock producers to better negotiate prices and increase their profits. In addition, the sponsors claim ithe bill would provide more certainty to a sector hard hit by coronavirus.  Livestock groups aren’t all in agreement about the proposal.  You can read the bill here, Senator Grassley’s press release here and Senator Tester’s news release here.

New Senate and House bills want to reform the U.S. food system.   Representative Ro Khanna from California has introduced the House companion bill to the Senate’s Farm System Reform Act first introduced by Senator Cory Booker in January.  The proposal intends to address underlying problems in the food system.  The bill places an immediate moratorium on the creation or expansion of large concentrated animal feeding operations and requires such operations to cease by January 1, 2040.  The proposal also claims to strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act and requires country of origin labeling on beef, pork, and dairy products.  The bill would also create new protections for livestock growers contracted by large meat companies, provide money for farmers to transition away from operating animal feeding facilities, strengthen the term “Product of the United States” to mean “derived from 1 or more animals exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered” in the U.S., and, similar to the Grassley/Tester bill above, require an increased percentage of meatpacker purchases to be “spot” transactions.

Lawmakers ask Trump to reimburse livestock producers through FEMA.  In another move that seeks to help livestock producers affected by the pandemic, a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives sent a letter to Donald Trump imploring him to issue national guidance to allow expenses of livestock depopulation and disposal to be reimbursed under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Public Assistance Program Category B.  The lawmakers reason that FEMA has “been a valued Federal partner in responding to animal losses due to natural disasters,” and that the COVID-19 epidemic should be treated “no differently.”  You can read the letter here.

More battling over biofuels.  Attorneys General from Wyoming, Utah, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and West Virginia have sent a request to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to waive the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) because of COVID-19 impacts on the fuel economy. The letter states that reducing the national quantity of renewable fuel required would alleviate the regulatory cost of purchasing tradable credits for refiners, who use the credits to comply with biofuel-blending targets.   Meanwhile, 70 mayors from across the U.S. wrote a letter urging the opposite, and criticizing any decisions not to uphold the RFS due to the impact that decision would have on local economies, farmers, workers, and families who depend on the biofuels industry.  The House is also weighing in on the issue.  In its recently passed HEROES Act, the House proposes a 45 cents per gallon direct payment to biofuel producers for fuels produced between Jan 1 and May 1, 2020 and a similar payment for those forced out of production during that time.

New USDA rule for genetically engineered crops.  A final rule concerning genetically engineered organisms is set to be published this week.  In the rule, USDA amends biotechnology regulations under the Plant Protection Act.  Importantly, the new rule would exempt plants from regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) if the plants are genetically engineered but the same outcome could have occurred using conventional breeding.  For instance, gene deletions and simple genetic transfers from one compatible plant relative to another would be exempted.  If new varieties of plants use a plant-trait mechanism of action combination that has been analyzed by APHIS, such plants would be exempt.  You can read a draft of the final rule here.

Trump’s new WOTUS rule attacked from both sides of the spectrum.  A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Trump Administration’s new “waters of the United States” or WOTUS rule.  Well, it didn’t take too long for those who oppose the rule to make their voices heard. The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA) sued the administration, claiming that the new rule is still too strict and leaves cattle ranchers questioning whether waters on their land will be regulated.  In their complaint, NMCGA argues that the new definition violates the Constitution, the Clean Water Act, and Supreme Court precedent.  On the other side, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with other conservation groups, sued the administration, but argued that the new rule does not do enough to protect water and defines “WOTUS” too narrowly.  Here we go again—will WOTUS ever truly be settled?

The Farm Office is Open!  Join us for analysis of these and other legal and economic issues facing farmers in the Farm Office Team’s next session of “Farm Office Live” on Thursday, May 28 at 9:00 a.m.  Go to this link to register in advance or to watch past recordings.

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Filed under ag law harvest, Animals, Biotechnology, Business and Financial, Crop Issues, Environmental, Food, livestock facilities, Renewable Energy, Water

New Clean Water Act interpretations make waves

Written by Ellen Essman

Even with most of the country shut down, the U.S. EPA and the Supreme Court last week released an important rulemaking and a decision, respectively, regarding how parts of the Clean Water Act will be interpreted going forward.  On April 21, 2020, the EPA and the Department of the Army published the Trump administration’s final rule on the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Then, on April 23, the Supreme Court released its long awaited opinion determining whether or not pollutants from a point source, which are released and then carried by groundwater into a navigable water, must be permitted under the CWA.

Trump’s new WOTUS

If you recall, we explained this final rule in January when the draft version was released.  Basically, the Trump administration wanted to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s 2015 WOTUS rule (explained here) because the administration felt that it was overreaching in the waters it protected.  The Trump administration did repeal the 2015 rule, and replaced it with the old 1986/1988 version of the WOTUS rule while they worked on the new version.  (See an explanation of the 1986/1988 language here.)

So what is included in the administration’s new definition? The following are defined as WOTUS, and therefore subject to the CWA under the new rule:

  • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  •  Tributaries;
  •   Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
  •  Adjacent wetlands.

Importantly, the new rule also includes an extensive list of what waters are not WOTUS, and therefore will not be protected by the CWA:

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  •  Ephemeral (caused by precipitation) features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
  • Diffuse stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
  •  Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
  •  Prior converted cropland;
  •  Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  •  Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
  • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
  • Waste treatment systems.

Currently, the 1986/1988 rules are the law of the land until this new rule goes into effect on June 22, 2020.  While this is the so-called “final” rule, chances are that it will be anything but final.  Like Obama’s 2015 rule, this new 2020 rule will probably be subject to lawsuits, this time from environmental groups and some state governments.  If you want to know more about WOTUS, our colleagues at the National Ag Law Center have created a very helpful timeline that explains all the different definitions of waters of the United States.

U.S. Supreme Court determines the scope of a “point source”

The CWA requires the polluter to obtain a permit from the EPA if pollutants are being discharged from a point source into navigable waters.  Under the CWA, “point source means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” The term “navigable waters” is defined as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”

In County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et. al., the United States Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether water treated by the County of Maui, which is pumped into the ground water and then travels about half a mile before it goes into the Pacific Ocean, requires a point source permit from the EPA.  Ultimately, in a 6-3 majority led by Justice Breyer, the court decided that yes, in this case, a permit would be required.  However, that does not mean that every conveyance through ground water will have the same outcome.

So, how did the court come to this conclusion?  First, Justice Breyer examined the meaning of the word “from” in the CWA.  Remember that the definition of a point source “means any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” On one hand, Breyer says that the Ninth Circuit’s definition of “from” was too broad, and on the other, he says that Maui’s definition was too narrow.  The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” approach, meaning that permits would be required for any pollutant that is “fairly traceable” back to a point source.  Breyer and the majority say that the Ninth Circuit took it too far, because then any pollutant that travelled for years and years or many miles could be considered to be “from” a point source.  Maui County argued that “if at least one nonpoint source” is “between the point source and the navigable water,” then no permit is necessary under the CWA.  The majority felt this was too narrow, because then every time a pollutant was moved along to a navigable water by a little bit of rainwater or a small stretch of groundwater, the polluter would be free to pollute without a permit. In other words, there would be a huge loophole in the statute—because the polluter or “pipe’s owner, seeking to avoid the permit requirement,” could “simply move the pipe back, perhaps only a few yards, so that the pollution must travel through at least some groundwater before reaching the sea.” What is more, Breyer cites congressional actions and history to interpret that Congress did not mean to make the statute as broad as the Ninth Circuit found it to be, nor as narrow as Maui County and the EPA suggest.

If the majority determined that one side read the statute too liberally and one too narrowly, then in what situations are point source permits required? Well, the court takes a kind of “we know it when we see it” approach.  The court says that a permit is required “when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is a functional equivalent of a direct discharge.” The court further explains this language saying that a “functional equivalent” happens when pollutants reach the “same result through roughly similar means.”  The court then provides some examples. For instance, a permit is obviously needed if a pipe ends just a couple of feet from a navigable water, and the pollutants then travel underground or across the land to the navigable water.  However, “[i]f the pipe ends 50 miles from navigable waters,” the pollutants would travel through a long stretch of groundwater, mixing with other pollutants, and taking years to reach the navigable waters. In this situation, the court says a permit would likely not be required.  Finally, Breyer lists relevant factors to consider when determining whether a permit is required:

  • Transit time,
  • Distance traveled,
  • The nature of the material through which the pollutant travels,
  • The extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels,
  • The amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source,
  • The manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters, and
  • The degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity.

Note that other factors could apply.  In addition, the court says that time and distance will often be the most important factors, but not always.  In the future, the EPA and lower courts will use this guidance to determine whether or not a point source permit is required.

Two major actions took place last week that will guide how the CWA is carried out going forward.   Trump’s WOTUS rule could be taken down by lawsuits or replaced by the next administration, and the Supreme Court’s ruling may be further clarified by future decisions. As of today, though, these are the guidelines for implementing the CWA.

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Filed under Environmental, Uncategorized, Water

The Ag Law Harvest

Written by Ellen Essman

Hello, readers! We hope you are all staying safe and healthy. Understandably, news related to agricultural law seems to have slowed down a little bit over the last few weeks as both the federal and state governments have focused mainly on addressing the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak.  That being said, there have been a few notable ag law developments you might be interested in.

Federal government extends the tax deadline.  The IRS announced on March 21 that the deadline for filing or paying 2019 federal income taxes will be extended to July 15, 2020.

Ohio Coronavirus Legislation. The Ohio General Assembly quickly passed House Bill 197 on Wednesday March 25, 2020.  HB 197 originally just involved changes to tax laws, but amendments were added to address the current situation.  Amendments that made it into the final bill include provisions for education—from allowing school districts to use distance learning to make up for instruction time, to waiving state testing.  Other important amendments make it easier to receive unemployment, move the state tax filing deadline to July 15, extend absentee voting, allow recently graduated nurses to obtain temporary licenses, etc. Of particular note to those involved in agriculture, HB 197 extends the deadlines to renew licenses issued by state agencies and political subdivisions.  If you have a state license that is set to expire, you will have 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted to renew the license.  HB 197 is available here. A list of all the amendments related to COVID-19 is available here.

Proposed changes to hunting and fishing permits in Ohio. In non-COVID news, Ohio House Bill 559 was introduced on March 18.  HB 559 would allow grandchildren to hunt or fish on their grandparents’ land without obtaining licenses or permits.  In addition, the bill would give free hunting and fishing licenses or permits to partially disabled veterans.  You can get information on the bill here.

EPA simplifies approach to pesticides and endangered species. Earlier this month, the U.S. EPA released its “revised method” for determining whether pesticides should be registered for use.  Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies must consider whether an action (in this case, registration of a pesticide) will negatively impact federally listed endangered species. EPA is authorized to make decisions involving pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The revised method consists of a three-step process.  First, EPA will consider whether use of the pesticide “may affect” or conversely, have no effect on the listed species. If no effect is found, EPA can register the pesticide.  On the other hand, if EPA finds that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, it must examine whether the pesticide is “likely to adversely affect” the species. In this second step, if EPA decides that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, but is not “likely to adversely affect” the species, then the agency may register the pesticide with the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  Conversely, if EPA finds that the pesticide is likely to adversely affect the species, it must move on to step three, where it must work with FWS or NMFS to more thoroughly examine whether an adverse effect will “jeopardize” the species’ existence or “destroy or adversely modify its designated critical habitat.”  The revised method is meant to simplify, streamline, and add clarity to EPA’s decision-making.

EPA publishes rule on cyazofamid tolerances. Continuing the EPA/pesticide theme, on March 18, EPA released the final rule for tolerances for residues of the fungicide cyazofamid in or on commodities including certain leafy greens, ginseng, and turnips.

Administration backs off RFS In our last edition of the Ag Law Harvest, we mentioned that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had handed a win to biofuels groups by deciding that EPA did not have the authority to grant three waivers to two small refineries in 2017. By granting the waivers, the EPA allowed the refineries to ignore the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and not incorporate biofuels in with their oil-based fuels. The Tenth Circuit decision overturned this action. The Trump administration has long defended EPA’s action, so that’s why it’s so surprising that the administration did not appeal the court’s decision by the March 25 deadline.

 Right to Farm statute protects contract hog operation.  If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may recall that many nuisance lawsuits have been filed regarding large hog operations in North Carolina. In Lewis v. Murphy Brown, LLC, plaintiff Paul Lewis, who lives near a farm where some of Murphy Brown’s hogs are raised, sued the company for nuisance and negligence, claiming that the defendant’s hogs made it impossible for him to enjoy the outdoors and caused him to suffer from several health issues. Murphy Brown moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the nuisance claim should be disqualified under North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act, and that the negligence claim should be barred by the statute of limitations.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina made quick work of the negligence claim, agreeing with Murphy Brown that the statute of limitations had passed.  North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act requires a plaintiff to show all of the following: that he is the legal possessor of the real property affected by the nuisance, that the real property is located within one-half mile of the source of the activity, and that the action is filed within one year of the establishment of the agricultural operation or within one year of the operation undergoing a fundamental change.  Since the operation was established in 1995 and the suit was not brought until 2019, and no fundamental change occurred, the court determined that Lewis’s claim was barred by the Right to Farm Act.  Since neither negligence or nuisance was found, the court agreed with Murphy Brown and dismissed the case.

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Case watch: Lake Erie Bill of Rights battle ends

Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Ellen Essman

In the not-too-surprising news category, a federal court has invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) that Toledo residents passed last year to recognize and protect legal rights for Lake Erie.  What is surprising, however, is how the court reached its decision to strike down LEBOR, even in the wake of a law passed by the Ohio legislature in July of 2019 that denies legal standing right to nature and prevents a person from bringing a court action on behalf of nature or any ecosystem.

The verdict came exactly one year after Drewes Farm Partnership filed its federal lawsuit to prevent enforcement of LEBOR a day after Toledoans passed the measure.  Drewes Farm asserted that LEBOR violated the farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Drewes Farm also argued that LEBOR exceeded the City of Toledo’s authority because it usurped the power of the state and the federal government by interfering with international relations, invalidating state and federal permits, invalidating state law, altering the rights of corporations, and creating new causes of action in state courts.  In April 2019, the state of Ohio joined the lawsuit as a fellow plaintiff.  Proponents of LEBOR unsuccessfully attempted to join in the litigation.

Did the plaintiffs have the right to bring the case?

The opinion begins with the court’s “standing” analysis.  Toledo argued that Drewes Farm and Ohio did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the City.  Legal standing requires that a plaintiff (1) suffers an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.  Failing to meet the legal standing requirement would force dismissal of the lawsuit.  Without a finding in favor of legal standing, the court wouldn’t be able to determine LEBOR’s validity.

The central issue in whether the parties had legal standing was the injury in fact requirement, according to the court.  To challenge LEBOR, the plaintiffs must demonstrate “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.”  The court determined that the state of Ohio met this requirement because it suffered an injury, “at least on paper,” from LEBOR’s invalidation of Ohio laws, regulations, licenses and permits and because the state “could” be sued under LEBOR.  The judge also found that Drewes Farm demonstrated injury in fact since any Toledo resident “could” sue the farm for violating LEBOR.

In its brief attention to the second component of standing, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, the court determined that the potential injuries were traceable to Toledo because its city charter was amended by voters to include the LEBOR language.  Even though the City itself did not legislatively enact LEBOR, had actually attempted to keep the issue off the ballot due to concerns that it was unconstitutional, and had not indicated any intent to enforce LEBOR, the court concluded that “the City is a proper defendant in the suit.”  The court also found that invalidating LEBOR would redress the plaintiffs’ injuries, the final requirement for legal standing.

LEBOR violates due process

The court next directly examined only one of the many constitutional claims against LEBOR, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and specifically focused on one element of due process:  clarity of the law.  The court stated that if a law is vague and unclear, it can “trap the innocent by not providing fair warning and invite arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.”  Pointing to language in LEBOR such as the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and Toledoans’ right to a “clean and healthy environment,” the court questioned what type of conduct would violate the broad language and how a judge or jury would determine the line between “clean and unclean and healthy and unhealthy.”  Spreading even a small amount of fertilizer could possibly violate LEBOR, the court said, as well as countless other activities such as catching fish, pulling weeds, planting corn, or driving a gas-powered vehicle.  Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the language is void for vagueness.  While LEBOR’s language sounds powerful, the court explained, it has no practical meaning, contains merely “aspirational statements” rather than rules of law, and violates constitutional due process.

What about other constitutional claims?

The court surprisingly didn’t tackle the many other constitutional issues raised by Drewes Farm and the State.  But in its “severability” analysis, the court did briefly touch on the constitutionality of LEBOR’s preemption of state and federal laws.  LEBOR contains a severability clause stating that a determination of one part of LEBOR as invalid does not invalidate the remaining parts of LEBOR.  According to the court, this severability clause is valid only if the constitutional and unconstitutional parts of LEBOR are capable of separation and can stand by themselves.  The court concluded that once the vague rights are stripped away, the remaining parts of LEBOR are meaningless.

The court then took the opportunity to note that LEBOR’s attempt to preempt Ohio law in the name of environmental protection would fail on its own merits.  Lake Erie’s health falls well beyond Toledo’s authority and rights to govern its internal affairs, and enacting laws that conflict with Ohio law is a “textbook example of what municipal government cannot do,” said the court.

Protecting Lake Erie is a worthy goal

In a slightly sympathetic nod to LEBOR supporters “frustrated by the status quo,” the court notes that using a democratic process to protect Lake Erie is a well-intentioned goal but LEBOR simply fails to achieve the goal.  Careful drafting by Toledoans could result in valid legislation that would reduce water pollution, the court explains, while highlighting an ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin that restricted the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in the city and withstood a legal challenge.

It comes as no surprise

Echoing what many had already concluded, the court criticized LEBOR’s authors for ignoring legal principals and constitutional limitations and stated that LEBOR’s invalidation should come as no surprise.  “This is not a close call,” the court says.  “LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio.  It is therefore invalid in its entirety.”

Now what?

LEBOR has met the end of its road, but it never really stood a chance of actual enforcement due to its clearly unconstitutional language.  LEBOR’s proponents often claimed that the purposes of LEBOR were to gain more attention to Lake Erie’s poor water quality and to push the concept of recognizing legal rights for nature and ecosystems a bit further down the road.  Were they successful?  Will Toledoans give up, or will they regroup and carefully draft new legislation to protect their water?

Farmers in Ohio now have absolute certainty that they will not be sued for violating Lake Erie’s “rights,” but such a lawsuit never really stood a chance of actual success due to LEBOR’s clearly unconstitutional language.  And let’s not forget the new language in Ohio Revised Code §2305.01 stating that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas; no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas; and no person shall bring an action in any court of common pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem.”

And what about Lake Erie’s water quality?  New voluntary programs are rolling out from Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan.  But many claim that more forceful measures are necessary.  Other litigation over the lake’s water quality lingers, and Ohio has listed the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired” and must develop a plan to address Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants in the lake.  It’s no surprise that even though it’s the end of the road for LEBOR, conflicts over solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will continue.

Read the U.S. District Court’s opinion on LEBOR here.  For our in-depth look at LEBOR, click here.  We review other Lake Erie legal activities here.

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Ohio Legislation on the Move

Written by Ellen Essman

The year is still fairly new, and 2020 has brought with it some newly-introduced legislation in the Ohio General Assembly.  That being said, in 2020 the General Assembly also continues to consider legislation first introduced in 2019.  From tax exemptions to CAUV changes, to watershed programs and local referendums on wind turbines, here is some notable ag-related legislation making its way through the state house.

New legislation

  • House Bill 400 “To authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for the retail sale of high-ethanol blend motor fuel”

HB 400 was introduced after our last legislative update in November, so while it was first introduced in 2019, it still technically qualifies as “new” to us.  Since its introduction, the bill has been discussed in two hearings in the House Ways & Means Committee.  The bill would give owners and operators of gas stations a tax rebate of five cents per gallon for sales of ethanol.  To apply, the fuel would have to be between 15% and 85% ethanol (E15).  If passed, the tax credit would be available for four years.  The bill is meant to encourage gas station owners in Ohio to sell E15, which is much more readily available in other states.  The bill is available here.

  • House Bill 485 “To remove a requirement that owners of farmland enrolled in the CAUV program must file a renewal application each year in order to remain in the program”

Introduced on January 29, 2020, HB 485 would make it easier for farmers to stay enrolled in the Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program.  CAUV allows agricultural land to be taxed at a much lower rate than other types of land.  If HB 485 were to pass, instead of filling out and turning in a CAUV renewal application every year, owners of agricultural land would simply have to submit documentation on the annual gross income of the land to the county auditor each year. The CAUV bill can be found here.

Legislation from 2019 still being considered

  • House Bill 24 “Revise Humane Society law”

In November, we reported that HB 24 passed the House unanimously and was subsequently referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.  Since that time, the committee has held two hearings on the bill. The hearings included testimony from the bill’s House sponsors, who touted how the bill would improve humane societies’ public accountability. The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations, require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve, and would establish procedures for seizing and impounding animals. It would also remove humane societies’ current jurisdiction over child abuse cases and make agents subject to bribery laws. Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense.  Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats.  You can read HB 24 here.

  • House Bill 109 “To authorize a property tax exemption for land used for commercial maple sap extraction”

HB 109 was first introduced in February of 2019, but has recently seen some action in the House Ways & Means Committee, where it was discussed in a hearing on January 28, 2020.  The bill would give owners of “maple forest land” a property tax exemption if they: (1) Drill an average of 30 taps during the tax year into at least 15 maple trees per acre; (2) use sap in commercially sold maple products; and (3) manage the land under a plan that complies with the standards of reasonable care in the protection and maintenance of forest land.  In addition, the land must be 10 contiguous acres. Maple forest land that does not meet that acreage threshold can still receive a tax exemption if the sap produces an average yearly gross income of $2,500 or more in the three preceding years, or if evidence shows that the gross income during the current tax year will be at least $2,500.  You can find the text of the proposed bill here.

  • House Bill 160 “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”

Have you ever thought, “Gee, this ice cream is great, but what could make it even better?” Well this is the bill for you! At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol in Ohio must obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol.  This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. HB 160 passed the House last year and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.  Since our last legislative update, the committee has had three hearings on the bill. In the hearings, proponents testified in support of the bill, arguing that it would allow their businesses to grow and compete with out of state businesses. Senators asked questions about how the ice cream would be kept away from children, how the bill would help business, and about other states with similar laws. To read the bill, click here.

  • Senate Bill 2 “Create watershed planning structure”

In 2019, SB 2 passed the Senate and moved on to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director.  Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region.  The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices.  Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus.  Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption.

Since SB 2 moved on to the lower chamber, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held multiple hearings on the bill, and has consented to two amendments.  The first amendment would keep information about individual nutrient management plans out of the public record. Similarly, the second amendment would keep information about farmers’ agricultural operations and conservation practices out of the public record. The text of SB 2 is available here.

  • Senate Bill 234 “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”

SB 234 was introduced on November 6, 2019.  Since that time, the bill was assigned to the Senate Energy & Public Utilities Committee, and three hearings have been held. The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote.  The bill would also change how minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured.  The committee hearings have included testimony from numerous proponents of the bill. SB 234 is available here.  A companion bill was also introduced in the House.  HB 401 can be found here.

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Ohio tackles “TMDL” for Lake Erie’s Western Basin

For the last several years, the state of Ohio and the U.S. EPA have been plagued with objections and lawsuits—from states, local governments, and environmental groups—concerning Ohio’s list of impaired waters and development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Some of our past blog posts on the subject are available here, here, and here.) Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states are required to submit a list of impaired, or polluted, waters every two years.  Typically, designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of TMDLs for different pollutants, and an action plan for meeting those TMDLs.  Ohio repeatedly failed to include the Western Basin in its list of impaired waters, even though the area has been subject to pollution-caused algal blooms in recent years.  When the state finally listed the Western Basin waters as impaired in 2018, it still did not develop the accompanying TMDL for the area.  However, Ohio’s TMDL drought ended last week.

Ohio EPA announced on February 13, 2020, that it would develop TMDLs for the Western Basin “over the next two to three years.” This decision will ultimately affect farmers in the watershed, as it is likely that the Ohio EPA would create TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers in the Western Basin. Consequently, farmers may have to reduce the amounts they put on their fields, and/or implement additional measures to keep such inputs from running off into the water.

So, Ohio listed the Western Basin as impaired and is working on TMDLs for the area—the controversy is over, right?  Not so fast.  Lucas County, Ohio and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA that is still ongoing.  (We last discussed this lawsuit here.) Basically, the plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the U.S. EPA violated the CWA when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate the Western Basin as impaired in 2018, but did not make the state develop TMDLs.  Even though Ohio has since promised to implement TMDLs for the area, the outcome of the case will still weigh in on the crucial question of whether the U.S. EPA can make states create TMDLs for impaired waters under the CWA.  In addition, the U.S. District Court case applies to Ohio’s 2018 impaired waters list, whereas Ohio EPA’s recent announcement concerns the 2020 list.  Finally, it’s doubtful that environmental groups and others will stop their efforts just because Ohio has now promised to create TMDLs—it’s almost a certainty that the debate over pollution in the Western Basin and the best ways to remedy the problem will persist.

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Is this the final word on WOTUS, or is the rule just being kicked downstream?

Written by Ellen Essman

There’s always something going on with the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  Last September, we wrote a post about how the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule would replace the 2015 Obama rule until the Trump administration finalized its new rule.  Well, the final rule was just announced by the EPA on January 24, 2020.  So, what does the new rule categorize as “waters of the United States?” Are there any differences between the rule as it was proposed in February of 2019 and the final rule? Will this version of WOTUS stick?

What is (and isn’t) WOTUS now?

The Trump EPA’s WOTUS rewrite maps out which waters are and are not waters of the United States. The following are WOTUS in the new rule:

      • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
      • Tributaries;
      •  Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
      • Adjacent wetlands.

Notably, this definition is a great deal shorter than the 2015 iteration of the rule, meaning that less waters fall under the rule. For a refresher on the 2015 rule, we discussed it at length here.

In addition, the new rule contains a much longer list of waters that are not WOTUS:

      • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
      • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
      • Ephemeral features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
      • Diffuse stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
      • Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
      • Prior converted cropland;
      • Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
      • Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
      • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
      • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
      • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
      • Waste treatment systems.

A draft version of the final rule is available here, and the EPA has a webpage with more information on the rule here.

Changes made to proposed rule

The most significant difference between the proposed rule and the final rule is the treatment of some waters connected by ephemeral streams.  Ephemeral streams are those streams that only last for a short time after precipitation.  In the proposed version of the rule, if upstream perennial and intermittent tributaries were connected to a water of the United States by an ephemeral stream, they were not WOTUS.  The final rule changes this, and such tributaries are WOTUS if they have a surface water connection to a downstream water of the United States during a normal year.  To make a long story short, the final rule protects some bodies of water that the proposed rule left out.

So, WOTUS is set in stone now, right?

Not exactly.  In addition to the ongoing lawsuits over the brief recodification of the 1986/1988 rules, (see our post here), it is almost certain that environmental groups and some states will file lawsuits against the new WOTUS rule.  Additionally, while many in the world of agriculture cheer the new rule, there are other groups that have already spoken out against it.  For example, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which includes many EPA employees, scientists, and lawyers, filed a lengthy complaint against the rule with the Inspector General. In the complaint, PEER argues that the new rule violates EPA’s “Scientific Integrity Policy,” which EPA employees must follow when making decisions. PEER alleges that top employees at the EPA did not follow this policy when writing the rule because the rule was not based on science, and EPA staff with expertise in the area were not consulted. While the new rule is currently the law of the land, we’ll have to wait and see how long it will last.  Challenges like the PEER complaint will have to be addressed, as well as an inevitable wave of lawsuits. Like the 2015 rule, the lawsuits and challenges will likely alter and/or interrupt the implementation of this so-called “final” rule.

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The Ohio Ag Law Blog–In Deep Water—EPA and states face lawsuits over water pollution

Written by Ellen Essman

Lawsuits against the U.S. EPA and individual states seem to be a popular strategy to address water pollution problems.  Last April, we wrote about Lucas County, Ohio and its suit against the EPA over water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie.  Since that time, a federal judge has given another lawsuit concerning Lake Erie, filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), the green light.  But not all litigation concerns Ohio waters—recently, Maryland’s attorney general was directed to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania over water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.   Here are summaries of these two developments.

Environmental Law & Policy Center vs. EPA

We wrote about this lawsuit in February 2019, when ELPC had just filed its complaint.  Essentially, ELPC contended that the U.S. EPA violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without instituting a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants going into the lake.  You can get more details on this case by reading our blog post, here.  Subsequently, EPA moved to dismiss the complaint.  In addition, Lucas County joined ELPC as co-plaintiffs.

On November 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied EPA’s motion to dismiss.  Judge James Carr ruled that the case can go forward, finding that ELPC “plausibly alleges that Ohio EPA has clearly and unambiguously refused to develop a TMDL for Western Lake Erie.” This means that the action will go forward and that ELPC will be able to argue the case on the merits.  You can read the ruling here.

Maryland to sue EPA, Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the governor recently sent a letter to the state’s attorney general asking him to “commence litigation” against the EPA for “failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay” TMDL, and against its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, for “repeatedly falling short of necessary pollution reduction goals.” At the center of this controversy is Pennsylvania’s draft Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which Maryland’s governor alleges will cause Pennsylvania to fall far behind its 2025 pollution reduction targets in addition to not meeting the TMDL.  The governor asserts that by accepting Pennsylvania’s WIP with very few changes, the EPA is failing to enforce Pennsylvania’s compliance with the established TMDL.

What’s next?

It typically takes these types of lawsuits a while to work through the courts. The way the courts decide these cases will affect how TMDLs are viewed.  Are TMDLs necessary under the CWA and enforceable, as the plaintiffs claim? Or are TMDLs simply soft goals and guidelines for reducing pollution that EPA does not necessarily have to enforce?  Ultimately, outcomes of these cases could have implications for agricultural runoff, which can be a contributor to pollution in both Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay.

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