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.
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.
We haven’t done a legislative update in a while—so what’s been going on in the Ohio General Assembly? Without further ado, here is an update on some notable ag-related bills that have recently passed one of the houses, been discussed in committee, or been introduced.
- House Bill 7, “Create water quality protection and preservation”
This bill passed the House in June, but the Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on it just last month. HB 7 would create both the H2Ohio Trust Fund and the H2Ohio Advisory Council. To explain these entities in the simplest terms, the H2Ohio Advisory Council would decide how to spend the money in the H2Ohio Trust Fund. The money could be used for grants, loans, and remediation projects to address water quality priorities in the state, to fund research concerning water quality, to encourage cooperation in addressing water quality problems among various groups, and for priorities identified by the Ohio Lake Erie commission. The Council would be made up of the following: the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie commission, one state senator from each party appointed by the President of the Senate, one state representative from each party appointed by the Speaker of the House, and appointees from the Governor to represent counties, municipal corporations, public health, business or tourism, agriculture, statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and institutions of higher education. Under HB 7, the ODA, OEPA, and ODNR would have to submit an annual plan to be accepted or rejected by the Council, which would detail how the agencies planned to use their money from the Fund. You can find the bill in its current form here.
- House Bill 24, “Revise Humane Society law”
HB 24 passed the House unanimously on October 30, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources. The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations and require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve. 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 160, “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”
Since our last legislative update, HB 160 has passed the House and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol must in Ohio 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. To read the bill, click here.
- House Bill 168, “Establish affirmative defense-certain hazardous substance release”
This bill was passed in the House back in May, but there have been several committee hearings on it this fall. HB 168 would provide a bona fide prospective purchaser of a facility that was contaminated with hazardous substances before the purchase with immunity from liability to the state in a civil action. In other words, the bona fide prospective purchaser would not have the responsibility of paying the state of Ohio for their investigations and remediation of the facility. In order to claim this immunity, the purchaser would have to show that they fall under the definition of a bona fide prospective purchaser, that the state’s cause of action rests upon the person’s status as an owner or operator of the facility, and that the person does not impede a response action or natural resource restoration at the facility. You can find the bill and related information here.
- House Bill 183, “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers”
House Bill 183 was discussed in the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on November 12. This bill would authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program. Another nonrefundable tax credit would be available for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers. ODA would be in charge of certifying individuals as “beginning farmers” and approving eligible financial management programs. HB 183 is available here. A companion bill (SB 159) has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Ways & Means Committee, but no committee hearings have taken place.
- House Bill 373, “Eliminate apprentice/special auctioneer licenses/other changes”
HB 373 was introduced on October 22, and the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee held a hearing on it on November 12. This bill would make numerous changes to laws applicable to auctioneers. For instance, it would eliminate the requirement that a person must serve as an apprentice auctioneer prior to becoming an auctioneer; instead, it would require applicants for an auctioneers’ license to pass a course. The bill would also require licensed auctioneers to complete eight continuing education hours prior to renewing their license. HB 373 would give ODA the authority to regulate online auctions conducted by a human licensed auctioneer, and would require people auctioning real or personal property on the internet to be licensed as an auctioneer. To read the bill in its entirety and see all the changes it would make, click here.
- Senate Bill 2, “Create watershed planning structure”
Since our last legislative post, SB 2 has passed the Senate and is now in 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. The text of SB 2 is available here.
- Senate Bill 234, “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”
Senate Bill 234 was just introduced on November 6, 2019. 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 minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured. SB 234 is available here. A companion bill was also recently introduced in the House. HB 401 can be found here.
Written by: Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
October is almost over, and while farmers have thankfully been busy with harvest, we’ve been busy harvesting the world of ag law. From meat labeling to RFS rules to backyard chickens and H-2A labor certification, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Federal judge upholds Missouri’s meat labeling law—for now. Missouri passed a law in 2018, which among other things, prohibited representing a product as “meat” if it is not derived from livestock or poultry. As you can imagine, with the recent popularity of plant-based meat products, this law is controversial, and eventually led to a lawsuit. However, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided not issue a preliminary injunction that would stop the Missouri Department of Agriculture from carrying out the labeling law. He reasoned that since companies like Tofurky, who brought the suit, label their products as plant-based or lab-grown, the law does not harm them. In other words, since Tofurky and other companies are not violating the law, it doesn’t make sense to stop enforcement on their account. Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the good Food Institute have appealed Judge Gaitan’s decision, asserting that Missouri’s law infringes upon their right to free speech. This means that the Missouri law can be enforced at the moment, but the decision is not final, as more litigation is yet to come.
Oregon goes for cage-free egg law. In August, Oregon passed a new law that would require egg-laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea fowl to be kept in a “cage-free housing system.” This law will apply to all commercial farms with more than 3,000 laying hens. A cage-free housing system must have both indoor and outdoor areas, allow the hens to roam unrestricted, and must have enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas. As of January 1, 2024, all eggs sold in the state of Oregon will have to follow these requirements for hens. The law does allow hens to be confined in certain situations, like for veterinary purposes or when they are part of a state or county fair exhibition.
City can ban backyard chickens, says court. The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District upheld the city of Columbiana’s ordinances, which ban keeping chickens in a residential district, finding that they were both applicable to the appellant and constitutional. In this case, the appellant was a landowner in Columbiana who lived in an area zoned residential and kept hens in a chicken coop on his property. The appellant was eventually informed that keeping his hens was in violation of the city code. A lawsuit resulted when the landowner would not remove his chickens, and the trial court found for the city. The landowner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that he did not violate the city ordinances as they were written, and that the city applied the ordinances in an arbitrary and unreasonable way because his chickens did not constitute a nuisance. Although keeping chickens is not explicitly outlawed in Columbiana, the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District found that reading the city’s zoning ordinances all together, the “prohibition on agricultural uses within residential districts can be inferred.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the city’s code did not ban chickens in the whole city, but instead limited them to agricultural districts, and that the prohibition in residential areas was meant to ensure public health. For these reasons, the court found that the ordinances were not arbitrarily and unreasonably applied to the appellant, and as a result, the ordinances are constitutional. To read the decision in its entirety, click here.
EPA proposes controversial Renewable Fuel Standard rule. On October 15, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program in 2020. The RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels. Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane. In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners. The administration promised a fix to this in early October, but many agricultural and biofuels groups feel that EPA’s October 15 proposed rule told a different story. Many of these groups are upset by the proposed blending rules, claiming that way the EPA proposes calculate the biofuel volumes would cause the volumes to fall far below what the groups were originally promised by the administration. This ultimately means the demand for biofuels would be less. On the other hand, the EPA claims that biofuels groups are misreading the rule, and that the calculation will in fact keep biofuel volumes at the level the administration originally promised. The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on October 30, followed by a comment period that ends November 29, 2019. Hopefully the hearing and comments will help to sort out the disagreement. More information is available here, and a preliminary version of the rule is available here.
New H-2A labor certification rule is in effect. The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized one of many proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural labor rules. A new rule addressing labor certification for H-2A became effective on October 21, 2019. The new rule aims to modernize the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers. An employer may advertise their H-2A job opportunities on a new version of the Department’s website, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov, now mobile-friendly, centralized and linked to third-party job-search websites. State Workforce Agencies will also promote awareness of H-2A jobs. Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.
And more rules: National Organic Program rule proposals. The USDA has also made two proposals regarding organic production rules. First is a proposed rule to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and handling. The rule would allow blood meal made with sodium citrate to be used as a soil amendment, prohibit the use of natamycin in organic crops, and allow tamarind seed gum to be used as a non-organic ingredient in organic handling if an organic form is not commercially available. That comment period closes on December 17, 2019. Also up for consideration is USDA’s request to extend the National Organic Program’s information collection reporting and recordkeeping requirements, which are due to expire on January 31, 2020. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service specifically invites comments by December 16, 2019 on: (1) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used; (3) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology.
Great Lakes restoration gets a boost from EPA. On October 22, 2019, the EPA announced a new action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The plan will be carried out by federal agencies and their partners through fiscal year 2024. Past GLRI action plans have removed environmental impairments on the lakes and prevented one million pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the lakes. The plans are carried out by awarding federal grant money to state and local groups throughout the Great Lakes, who use the money to carry out lake and habitat restoration projects. Overall, the new plan’s goals are to remove toxic substances from the lakes, improve and delist Areas of Concern in the lakes, control invasive species and prevent new invasive species from entering the lakes, reduce nutrients running off from agriculture and stormwater, protect and restore habitats, and to provide education about the Great Lakes ecosystem. You can read EPA’s news release on the new plan here, and see the actual plan here. We plan to take a closer look at the plan and determine what it means for Ohio agriculture, so watch for future updates!
Update: The final rule concerning the listing of the rusty patched bumble bee as endangered was originally slated to go into effect on February 10, 2017, as is described below. On February 9, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register explaining that they would abide by the Trump Administration’s 60-day regulatory freeze and delay the effective date until March 21, 2017. The Federal Register entry is available here.
Will the bee's ESA listing stand, and how might it affect agriculture?
Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
On January 11, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule designating the rusty patched bumble bee (scientific name Bombus affinis) as an endangered species, the first bee in the continental U.S. to receive this status. The rule was originally slated to go into effect on February 10, 2017. If the rule is allowed to stand, it will have a number of implications for federal agencies, farmers, and other private entities.
The final rule, found in the Federal Register at 50 CFR Part 17, includes a lengthy description of the rusty patched bumble bee. The bees have black heads, and the worker bees, as well as the male bees, have a “rusty reddish patch centrally located on the abdomen,” giving them their common name. Necessities for the species include “areas that support sufficient food (nectar and pollen from diverse and abundant flowers), undisturbed nesting sites in proximity to floral resources, and overwintering sights for hibernating queens.” Additionally, the bees prefer temperate areas. The rusty patched bumble bee was found in 31 states and provinces in the 1990s. From the year 2000 and on, the bumble bee has only been found in a diminished range of 14 states and provinces. The bumble bee has been found in Ohio since 2000, but following the overall trend, at much lower rates.
Possible reversal of the rule
Since the publishing of the final rule, the Trump Administration has instituted a regulatory freeze on administrative agencies which could push back effective dates for those regulations that have not yet gone into effect by at least 60 days. In the meantime, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) may also affect the final rule. The CRA gives Congress 60 legislative days from either the date a rule is published in the Federal Register, or the date Congress receives a report on the rule, to pass a joint resolution disapproving the rule. A signature by the President is the final step required to invalidate the rule. What is more, an agency cannot submit a rule after these steps are taken that is “substantially in the same form” as the overturned rule. Historically, the CRA has not been frequently used, as success is typically only possible when a number of events align:
- There is a new presidential administration;
- Congress and the President are members of the same party;
- The previous President was a member of the opposing party; and
- The timing of rule publication or rule reporting and Congressional calendars allow for a joint resolution within the 60-day limit.
The text of the CRA is available here. With the regulatory freeze and the possible use of the CRA, it is not clear when or even if the new rule will actually go into effect.
Importance of the rusty patched bumble bee
The rusty patched bumble bee is a pollinator species, meaning they, along with other pollinators, assist with the reproduction of flowers, crops, and grasses. According to a FWS fact sheet, in the United States, the rusty patched bumble bee and other insects’ pollination is worth $3 billion annually.
The Endangered Species Act
What exactly is the process for listing a species as “endangered?” The Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) definition of an endangered species is: “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Accordingly, the ESA allows the FWS to designate species as endangered or threatened as long as one (or more) of five factors apply:
- (A) The present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range;
- (B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
- (C) Disease or predation;
- (D) The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
- (E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. 16 USC 1533.
In the case of the rusty patched bumble bee, the FWS found that factors (A), (C), and (E) applied. For factor (A), which concerns loss of habitat and range, the FWS cited past encroachment by residential, commercial, and agricultural development. Additionally, agriculture has contributed to the replacement of plant diversity with monocultures, which has resulted in loss of food for the bees. What is more, the range of the rusty patched bumble bee has faced an 87% reduction, as well as an 88% drop in the number of recognized populations.
Concerning factor (C), FWS pointed to a number of diseases and parasites that have afflicted the rusty patched bumble bee. Finally, for factor (E), the FWS identified more numerous hot and dry periods, pesticide and herbicide use, and reproductive issues that have contributed to the reduction of the species. Due to its findings and the factors discussed, the FWS determined that the rusty patched bumble bee is “in danger of extinction throughout its range,” and therefore designated it as endangered.
Significance of ESA listing
After a species is labeled “endangered,” what happens next? In order to facilitate recovery of a species, the ESA also calls for, to the “maximum extent prudent and determinable,” a critical habitat designation to be made for the species. The term “critical habitat” does not apply to everywhere the species is found. Instead, “critical habitat” can be certain places both inside and outside the overall “geographical area occupied by the species” that are found to be “essential” to its preservation. In the case of the rusty patched bumble bee, the FWS has not yet determined its critical habitat.
Implications for agriculture
Under the ESA, federal agencies and private entities have different responsibilities. Federal agencies generally must make sure that any action they are involved in will not do harm to an endangered species or its critical habitat. For the most part, private entities are not affected by critical habitat unless financial aid or approval is sought from a federal agency.
Even though critical habitat concerns do not explicitly apply to private entities, the ESA does contain provisions that prohibit the importing, exporting, possession, sale, delivery, transport, shipping, receiving, or carrying of an endangered species in the United States or in foreign commerce. What is more, the ESA prohibits the “taking” of endangered species within the United States or in the ocean. “Take” is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect,” an endangered species, or to attempt to do so (emphasis added). It is important to note that “harm” is defined as “an act which actually kills or injures fish or wildlife…includ[ing] significant habitat modification or degradation which actually kills or injures fish or wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavior patterns, including, breeding, spawning, rearing, migrating, feeding or sheltering.” Thus, even though the designation of an endangered species and its critical habitat does not explicitly affect private entities, the definitions of “take” and “harm,” when read together, implicitly prohibit actions that are damaging to the species or its habitat. The FWS rule defining “harm” can be found here. The government can assess penalties against those who violate these provisions.
Farmers and other private entities should be aware of the designation of a species as endangered. In the case of the rusty patched bumble bee, if the rule is allowed to stand, private landowners, including farmers, would not be allowed to “take” or “harm” the bee or destroy its critical habitat. Given the important role pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee play in making agriculture possible, we can assume that agriculture will want to protect the species. But due to the nature of this species, it will be difficult to ascertain when a farmer’s actions do “take” or “harm” a rusty patched bumble bee. The nature of the species and the future status of the rule create much uncertainty on how agriculture will address the rusty patched bumble bee going forward.
Transition Incentives Program aims to help new and disadvantaged farmers obtain land.
The Farm Bill's new Transition Incentives Program (TIP) is now available in Ohio. The addition to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will provide rental payments to transition CRP land from a retired farmer to a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer who returns the land to sustainable production. TIP received $25 million in funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. Program supporters hope the funds will enable beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to obtain affordable land for agricultural production.
Here's how the program will work:
- The CRP landowner must be a "retired" or "retiring" landowner.
- The CRP contract must expire on or after September 30, 2010, but there is an exception for certain contracts that expired in 2008 and 2009.
- The landowner must enroll all or a portion of the CRP land in TIP by the enrollment deadline. Contracts expiring in 2010 and eligible 2008 and 2009 contracts must be enrolled by September 30, 2010. Later contracts must be enrolled during the last year of the contract.
- The new or socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher must develop a conservation plan for the TIP land.
- By October 1 of the CRP contract expiration year, the landowner must agree to sell or lease (for a minimum of five years) the land to a non-family "beginning" or "socially disadvantaged" farmer or rancher and must allow the farmer to make improvements on the land in accordance with the approved conservation plan.
- The beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer must return the land to production using sustainable grazing or crop production methods.
- The beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer will be eligible to enroll the land in continuous CRP, Conservation Stewardship Program or Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with a waiver of the provision requiring 12 months of continuous ownership.
- The landowner will receive up to two additional CRP annual rental payments if all TIP requirements are met.
A few important definitions:
- A "retired or retiring" owner is one who has ended active labor as a crop producer, or plans to do so within five years of the TIP arrangement.
- A "new or beginning farmer or rancher" is one who has been farming for less than ten years and who will materially participate in the operation of the TIP land. If an entity, at least 50% of the entity's members or stockholders must meet the ten year, material participation requirements.
- A "socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher" is a member of a group that has been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice. Examples include American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Asians, Asian-Americans, Blacks, African Americans, Hispanics. Unlike other federal programs, this definition does not encompass gender prejudice; hence, women do not qualify as socially disadvantaged for purposes of the TIP program.
A few questions arise when considering whether there will be interest in TIP. Are there sufficient incentives for the CRP landowner to transition the land, are there connections between CRP landowners and beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers, and how will the rental payment affect the purchase or lease price for the land? Ohio will soon have an indication of program interest, with the first enrollment deadline of September 30, 2010 quickly approaching.
For more information on TIP, visit the FSA site.