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The Western Lake Erie Impaired Waters Saga Continues

Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Ohio EPA has released its draft water quality report for 2018 and the report proposes to list the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as “impaired.” Readers of the Ag Law Blog will remember that the road to this listing has been long and complicated. The numerous posts we’ve written on this subject can be found by searching “impaired waters” on our blog website.

The controversy began in the fall of 2016, when Michigan and Ohio submitted their respective impaired waters lists to the U.S. EPA. Every two years, a regulation promulgated under the Clean Water Act requires states to turn in a list of their impaired waters. Michigan listed the waters of Lake Erie under its jurisdiction as impaired, while Ohio did not list the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired. The waters described by Michigan as impaired and those not listed by Ohio are basically one in the same, hence the problem. The U.S. EPA approved Michigan’s list in early 2017, but made no decisions about Ohio’s list.

As a result of the discrepancy over Lake Erie, environmental and other groups sued the U.S. EPA to make a decision about Ohio’s impaired waters list. On May 18, 2017, the U.S. EPA approved Ohio’s list. However, on January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its earlier approval and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of the status of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.

With all of this back and forth and litigation, it is now long past the due date for the 2016 impaired waters list. As a result, the draft water quality report submitted by the Ohio EPA on March 22 contains the 2018 list.

Ohio EPA’s 2018 Draft Water Quality Report

In its draft water quality report, the Ohio EPA outlines the general condition of Ohio’s waters and lists “impaired waters” that are not meeting federal or state water quality goals and waters that have improved to meet water quality standards. For the first time, the EPA includes the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie on its impaired list. The impaired designation is for recreational uses “due to harmful algae” and for drinking water “due to occurrences of microcystin.” (Microcystin are harmful toxins created by blue-green algae. More information about these toxins is here.) Other new areas listed as impaired for drinking water due to harmful algae are Sims Run, parts of the Maumee River, the headwaters to Grand River and the headwaters of Cowan Creek in the Little Miami River watershed.

Next steps and public comments

While an impaired listing may not create immediate change in the Western Basin, it will require Ohio to create total maximum daily loads, which are the amounts of different pollutants allowed to be discharged each day in the open waters. This could eventually mean increased regulation of certain pollutants in the area, which may include agricultural nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Only time will tell.

The EPA is accepting written comments on its proposed list of impaired waters. Submit comments by May 4, 2018, to epa.tmdl@epa.ohio.gov, or to Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049, attn: 303(d) comments. Following public review and comments, the agency will submit a final report to the U.S. EPA. The agency published a news release on the draft water quality report and is hosting an upcoming webinar on the report on April 25, 2018.

Read the EPA’s draft water quality report here.

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U.S. EPA Wants Public Comments on Regulatory Reform

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking public input on EPA regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification.   The request for comments is in response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which required the heads of agencies such as the EPA to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations to repeal, replace, or modify regulations that create unnecessary burdens on the American people.

In announcing the agency’s regulatory reform plans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated that, “EPA will be listening to those directly impacted by regulations, and learning ways we can work together with our state and local partners, to ensure that we can provide clean air, land, and water to Americans.”  Pruitt also issued harsh criticism of “misaligned regulatory actions from the past administration.”

Consistent with President Trump’s Executive Order, Pruitt appointed several EPA staff to a Regulatory Reform Task Force that will guide the agency’s reform efforts.  In establishing the public comment process, the Task Force is asking entities significantly affected by federal regulations, including state, local and tribal governments, small businesses, consumers, non-governmental organizations, and trade associations to provide comments that will help the Task Force identify regulations that:

  • Eliminate jobs or inhibit job creation;
  • Are outdated, unnecessary or ineffective;
  • Impose costs that exceed benefits;
  • Create serious inconsistency or otherwise interfere with regulatory reform initiatives and policies;
  • Rely on data, information or methods that are not publicly available or sufficiently transparent for reproducibility;
  • Derive from Executive Orders or other Presidential directives that have been rescinded or modified.

The comment period offers the agricultural community an opportunity to raise concerns with EPA regulations that may negatively impact agricultural production.   Note that agencies such as the EPA do not base regulatory decision-making on the total number of comments for or against an issue; it is not like a popular ballot vote.  Instead, the EPA must base its regulations on information contained in public comments as well as on scientific data, expert opinions, and facts.  After receiving comments in this initial public participation period, the EPA will likely develop recommendations for regulatory reform.  If so, the agency must offer the public additional opportunity to comment on its reform proposals.

The EPA will accept public comments on regulatory reform until May 15, 2017.  Instructions for submitting comments are available here.  The agency has already received over 18,000 comments on its online docket, which is available here.  Members of the public may request that the EPA allow more time to submit comments, and the EPA may consider late-filed comments if their decision-making schedule permits it.  However, commenters should be aware that agencies do not have to consider late comments.

The EPA is also hosting public meetings around the country on regulatory reform in regards to different topics such as water, chemical safety and pesticides.  A list of the public meetings is available here.

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