You’re never going to make everyone happy. This is especially true when it comes to the federal definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The definition of WOTUS has changed over the years in order to adapt to numerous court decisions. The Obama administration’s 2015 rule has been litigated so much that a patchwork of enforcement has been created across the country, with some states falling under the 2015 rule and others falling under the previous iterations of the rule from 1986 and 1988. In fact, in New Mexico, parts of the state follow one rule and other parts follow the other. You can see the current state breakdown here.
To add even more chaos to all of this confusion, the Trump administration decided to repeal and replace Obama’s 2015 rule. In September, a rule was announced that would repeal the 2015 WOTUS rule and replace it with the 1986 and 1988 rule. This reversion would not be permanent; the 1986/1988 rule is simply a placeholder until the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalize a new WOTUS rule to replace it. The repeal is set to become effective in December. You can read our blog post on the repeal here.
Of course, there are those who are unhappy with the 1986/1988 rule being reinstated, even if only for a time. In October, two lawsuits were filed against the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in federal district courts. In South Carolina, environmental groups sued because they feel that the 1986/1988 rules do not go far enough to protect waters. On the other hand, in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association sued because they feel that returning to the 1986/1988 rules goes too far in regulating water. Below, we will briefly break down the arguments in each of these lawsuits.
South Carolina lawsuit
Following the October repeal announcement, environmental groups, including the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, claiming that the repeal rulemaking was unlawful. In their complaint, the environmental groups make several arguments. They allege that the repeal rulemaking violates the Due Process Clause, Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and Supreme Court precedent. They say that the Due Process Clause has been violated because the rulemaking was not undertaken with an open mind, instead it was already pre-judged or all but decided before the process even started. They cite many violations of the APA—including failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the repeal, failing to discuss alternatives to repealing the rule, and failing to provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment on the rulemaking. Additionally, the environmental groups claim that the repeal “illegally departs from Justice Kennedy’s” opinion in the Rapanos case. Ultimately, Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos is what led the EPA and Corps to scrap the 1986/1988 rule and create the 2015 rule to be more consistent with that opinion. Therefore, the environmental groups argue that going back to the 1986/1988 version would violate Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test for WOTUS, which invalidated the old version of the rule. In other words, the environmental groups believe that going back to the 1980s rules will result in less waters being protected.
New Mexico lawsuit
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. In the complaint, NMCGA asks the court to enjoin, or stop the enforcement of the repeal rule, claiming that the rule violates the CWA, the Congressional Review Act, the Commerce Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Non-delegation Doctrine, and the Tenth Amendment. The NMCGA’s argument hinges on the definition of “navigable waters.” Under the CWA, “navigable waters” are the same as WOTUS. Like the environmental groups in South Carolina, NMCGA interprets the Rapanos decision as invalidating provisions of the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule. NMCGA, however, reads Rapanos as limiting “navigable waters” to only the waters that are actually navigable, or “navigable-in-fact.” Thus, unlike the environmental groups, NMCGA believes that both the 1986/1988 rule and the 2015 rule result in more waters being regulated than is allowed under the CWA and Supreme Court decisions.
Will the tide turn on WOTUS in the future?
Despite the Trump EPA’s repeal and upcoming replacement of the 2015 rule, the future of WOTUS is anything but certain. The lawsuits in South Carolina and New Mexico are just the latest proof of that. What is more, the lawsuits to enjoin the 2015 rule are still ongoing, and it is unclear whether they will be wiped out when the repeal rule becomes effective in December. When the replacement rule is finally published, there is no doubt even more lawsuits will follow. It’s also important to remember that we have an election next year, so if there’s a new administration, they’ll probably put their own stamp on WOTUS.
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!
In August, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Trump Administration would be making revisions to the way the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is carried out under federal regulations. The move was made in part to further the Administration’s goal to “ease the regulatory burden” on citizens. The revised regulations apply to sections 4 and 7 of the ESA, which means they make changes to how species are listed as endangered, how critical habitat for species is determined, how threatened species are treated, and how the different federal agencies cooperate to carry out the ESA.
Revision of endangered, threatened, and critical habitat protections
The changes to how the ESA is carried out were made in three rulemakings published on August 27, 2019. One of the rules, available here, is meant to increase cooperation between federal agencies when carrying out the ESA (this rule is set to become effective on October 28). Changes made by the other two rules, available here, and here, are much more controversial because they have a great impact on how endangered and threatened species and their habitats are treated under federal regulations. The new rules went into effect on September 26, 2019. We discuss some of the biggest modifications below.
First, the rules change the term “physical or biological features” to “physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.” This change will likely diminish the number of natural features and areas that will be protected, since only those deemed essential to an endangered species will be protected. Similarly, the new rules give the federal government more leeway to determine when habitat is not critical habitat for species, which may result in less habitat being protected under the new iteration of the rules.
In yet another change, the new rules separate the discussion of “threatened” and “endangered” species within the regulatory text. Due to this uncoupling, some read the new version of the rule as stripping threatened species of protections they enjoyed when they were more closely related to endangered species. The new edition of the rules instead includes factors for determining whether a species can be listed as threatened, such as whether it is likely the species will become endangered in the “foreseeable future,” which will be determined on a case by case basis. Critics of the new rules believe that this language will give the government the discretion to overlook the effects of climate change on a species, which could play out over a period of time longer than the “foreseeable future.” Along the same lines, the rules also make it harder to ban certain activities in order to protect threatened species.
The rules weaken the ESA by allowing the federal government to take into account the actions of states, other nations, and local jurisdictions when listing and delisting species. In other words, if the species is being protected on another level of government or by another country, the U.S. government may be less inclined to protect the species; either by choosing not to list the species, or by removing its threatened or endangered status. Importantly, the new rules also allow “commercial information,” not just scientific information, to be considered when making a decision. Under the old rules, agencies were not allowed to consider the economic impacts of listing or delisting a species. On the whole, the rules seem to give the federal government a lot more discretion to determine that species or habitats should not be protected.
On September 25, 2019, the day before the new rules became effective, the attorneys general from 17 states, including Ohio’s neighbors Michigan and Pennsylvania, sued the Trump Administration in federal court over the changes to the rules. You can find the complaint here. The states assert that the rulemaking violates several federal statutes, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal administrative agencies. The states further claim that the weakening of protections for endangered and threatened species and their habitats will cause harm to their natural resources, harm to their citizens through environmental degradation, take away the current and future economic benefits of protected species, and increase costs for state governments.
Amidst all the rule changes and lawsuits, members of Congress have been working on their own potential changes to the ESA. Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of congress members from all around the country who are concerned with land use and resource rights, among other causes, introduced nineteen bills meant to “modernize” the ESA. If you’re interested in the specifics of each bill, they are listed on the Caucus’ website, here. Overall, the bills focus on fixing the ESA by implementing “defined recovery goals” for species, relying on “standardized…publically available” science, and allowing more involvement from states and stakeholders on endangered species decisions.
With action taking place on the administrative, legislative, and judicial levels of the federal government, the way the ESA is written and interpreted seems to be up in the air at present. We will be sure to update the Ag Law Blog with any developments.
Farm Science Review is upon us, and we’re hoping that the low-80s forecast holds true. In addition to checking the weather report, we’ve been monitoring the news for developments in the agricultural law world, and quizzing each other on agricultural law topics so that we’re ready to answer your questions. While we hope you come see our presentations (speaking schedule available HERE), we won’t make you wait until you see us at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London to learn what we’ve found in the news.
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 signed into law. We’ve talked about this bill on the ag law blog, and now it’s official. With the President’s signature, the debt limit for family farmers seeking to reorganize under Chapter 12 bankruptcy increases to $10 million from an adjusted $4.4 million.
No vote on community rights in Williams County, yet. A proposed county charter for Williams County, Ohio containing language similar to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights may not make it on the November ballot. The Ohio Supreme Court recently refused to compel the Williams County Board of Elections (BOE) to include the charter on the ballot for procedural reasons.
The charter would have declared that the people of Williams County have the right to a healthy environment and sustainable community, and that the Michindoh Aquifer and its ecosystem have the right to exist, flourish, evolve, regenerate. Further, the aquifer would have the right of restoration, recovery, and preservation, including the right to be free from interferences such as the extraction, sale, lease, transportation, or distribution of water outside of the aquifer’s boundary.
Even though the petition to put the charter on the ballot had enough signatures, the BOE believed that the language of the charter violated Ohio law, and therefore exercised its power to reject the petition and keep it off the ballot. The petitioners appealed the BOE’s decision to the Williams County Court of Common Pleas, and that court agreed with the BOE. Instead of going to the Court of Appeals, the petitioners tried to go directly the Ohio Supreme Court because the BOE will soon print the November ballots. The Ohio Supreme Court said the petitioners should have gone to the Court of Appeals first, and that it will not decide on whether the BOE has to include the charter on the ballot until the petitioners do so.
This doesn’t mean the end for the proposed charter, but rather that more court time is in the proposed charter’s future. To read the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion, click HERE. To read the text of the proposed charter, click HERE.
Hemp, hemp, and more hemp. Legal and policy updates on hemp continue to trickle down from state and federal officials. Since our last blog post, when we released our latest law bulletin on the legal status of hemp in Ohio, there have been a couple additional developments.
One of the latest updates we’ve heard from USDA is that industrial hemp growers in states with a USDA-approved hemp production plan may apply for crop insurance to cover hemp grown for fiber, flower, or seeds starting next year. Ohio is in the process of putting together a hemp program to send to the USDA for approval. Ohio farmers still cannot legally grow hemp until the Ohio Department of Agriculture creates a hemp program and the USDA approves that program, but we are expecting rules to be released from those agencies in the coming weeks. For more about the crop insurance update, read the Risk Management Agency’s press release HERE.
Closer to home, we’ve heard that the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has requested $3.3 million from the Ohio Controlling Board for staffing along with IT equipment and support. Further, ODA has made statements predicting that it expects to have its rule hemp program rule package ready by the end of the year.
Federal court orders U.S. EPA to reconsider Renewable Fuel Standards waivers and their impact on endangered species. The U.S. EPA is responsible for creating fuel standards that incorporate and blend renewable sources of energy under the Clean Air Act. These standards tell refineries how much of their fuel blend must come from renewable sources of energy; however, the U.S. EPA also has the authority to grant waivers to companies that would have difficulty meeting the standard. The court noted that some industry groups felt that the 2018 rules were too strict, while others argued that they were too lax. The court ended up dismissing all but one of the claims against the U.S. EPA, saying that Congress gave it discretion in developing the standards. However, the court sent the rule back to the U.S. EPA due to an argument by environmental groups that the federal agency failed to conduct a thorough review of the risk to endangered animals, plants, and habitats under the Endangered Species Act. Many farm groups have criticized the Trump administration’s granting of waivers for causing a reduction in demand for their products from energy companies, but it appears that they will have to make their arguments to the administration rather than to the courts. To read the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, click HERE.
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
What’s old is new again. To what was likely a mixed chorus of cheers and groans heard around the nation, the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers today announced the repeal of the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The action is “Step 1” in the Trump administration’s two-step plan to repeal and replace the WOTUS rule, which establishes the jurisdictional authority of the EPA and Army Corps over waters and waterways. It came in the form of a final rule that not only repeals the 2015 WOTUS rule set in place by the Obama Administration, but also reverts the entire country back to the old regulatory definitions of “waters of the United States” that were developed in 1986 and 1988 rulemakings and further interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Those definitions of WOTUS created a lot of confusion and litigation over the actual meaning of WOTUS, which the 2015 WOTUS rule aimed to clear up. Today’s “Step 1” takes us back to the older, earlier definition of WOTUS.
Wait—there’s a Step 2?
Back in February, we wrote a blog post when the Trump administration began what is now “Step 2,” proposing a new definition of WOTUS. If that rule becomes final, it will replace the pre-2015 WOTUS definitions put in place by today’s announcement. So, Step 1 involves reverting back to the old WOTUS definition until Step 2, implementing a new definition, is finalized.
The Trump administration’s proposed WOTUS rule scales back the reach of the 2015 WOTUS rule, which many claimed exceeded the agencies’ regulatory authority over waterways and waterbodies in the U.S. Under the currently proposed rule, tributaries that are “ephemeral”—meaning those that are not around for a great deal of time or created by temporary conditions like rainfall or snowmelt—would not be considered as WOTUS. In both the 2015 and pre-2015 WOTUS definitions, at least some ephemeral streams fell under federal regulation. The currently proposed rule also clarifies waters that are not WOTUS by including a list of such waters. The Trump administration states that its proposed rule would encompass fewer ditches, lakes, ponds, and adjacent wetlands than both the 2015 and pre-2015 versions of WOTUS.
So what’s WOTUS now, exactly?
Until the tide turns again, the definition of WOTUS set in place by today’s announcement is the pre-2015 rule, which is as follows:
- All waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including all waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
- All interstate waters including interstate wetlands;
- All other waters such as intrastate lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, or natural ponds, the use, degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate or foreign commerce including any such waters: (i) which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or (ii) from which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or (iii) which are used or could be used for industrial purposes by industries in interstate commerce;
- All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under this definition;
- Tributaries of waters identified above;
- The territorial seas;
- Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified above;
The current WOTUS does not include prior converted cropland or certain waste treatment systems. Importantly, it also contains definitions for the terms wetlands, adjacent, high water, ordinary high water mark and tidal waters—many of these definitions have been the source of the litigation and confusion that led to the 2015 rule.
It’s been a while since we’ve written about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). As a refresher, LEBOR was passed in February in a special election as an amendment to Toledo’s city charter. LEBOR was meant to create new legal rights for Lake Erie, the Lake Erie ecosystem, and to give Toledo citizens the ability to sue to enforce those legal rights against a government or a corporation violating them. For a longer explanation on LEBOR, see our post here. Since then, lawsuits for and against LEBOR have been filed, and the state of Ohio has passed legislation concerning the language in LEBOR. Updates on those actions will be discussed below.
Update on the Drewes Farm lawsuit
The day after LEBOR passed, Drewes Farm Partnership initiated a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division, against the city of Toledo. Our initial blog posts concerning this lawsuit are available here and here. In May, we discussed updates to the Drewes Farm lawsuit in yet another blog post. Since our last update, the Lake Erie Ecosystem and TSW’s motion to stay pending appeal and the appeal were both denied, meaning the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to leave the ecosystem and TSW out of the lawsuit. As a result, the current parties to the lawsuit are plaintiffs Drewes Farm Partnership and the State of Ohio, as well as the defendant City of Toledo. In early June, both the Drewes Farm Partnership and the state of Ohio filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. The district court has not yet determined whether to grant the motions; the City of Toledo’s response to the motions is due on August 9, 2019. After the response is filed, the plaintiffs will have a chance to reply.
Toledo Citizens file lawsuit against State of Ohio
In the midst of the Drewes Farm lawsuit, yet another complaint has been filed concerning LEBOR. On June 27, 2019, three citizens of Toledo filed a complaint against the state of Ohio in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas. In the complaint, the citizens, who all voted for LEBOR, asked the court to find that the state has failed to address pollution in Lake Erie, and due to its inaction, circumstances in the lake are getting worse, that LEBOR is enforceable under the Ohio Constitution and state law, and to issue an injunction to prevent the state from curtailing their rights under LEBOR. Currently, it appears as though no response has been filed by the state of Ohio. Perhaps the state wants to let recently passed legislation do the talking.
State budget bill includes language aiming to invalidate LEBOR, adds water quality initiative
Finally, the Ohio General Assembly has also gotten in on the LEBOR action. On July 18, 2019, Governor DeWine signed the General Assembly’s budget bill into law. Page 482 contains language that seems to be aimed at LEBOR and other environmental community rights initiatives. Most importantly, the bill states:
- Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate 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.
It will be interesting to see how courts handle lawsuits on behalf of ecosystems and nature after the passage of this budget law.
While the budget bill appears to take LEBOR and initiatives like it head-on, it also created a water quality initiative called “H2Ohio,” which includes a fund in the state treasury. The money in the H2Ohio fund will go toward water quality improvement projects, including projects to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment pollution from agricultural practices. With this initiative, the state seems to be offering an alternative way to protect its waters, including Lake Erie.
Work continues on sorting out the legality of LEBOR and the wider problem of Lake Erie pollution, and there appears to be no end in sight. Keep an eye on the Ohio Ag Law Blog for new developments on LEBOR lawsuits and the H2Ohio program!
It’s been a busy July in the ag law world, to say the least. The Ohio General Assembly officially passed the hemp bill and a budget, RMA adjusted its prevent plant restrictions, and we have seen more activity on LEBOR. With everything that is going on, it’s time for another ag law harvest. Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Ohio Department of Agriculture announces website for future hemp program. Just days after S.B. 57 took effect, the Ohio Department Agriculture (ODA) launched a new webpage declaring “Hemp Is Now Legal.” However, the webpage goes on to explain that hemp cultivation, processing, and research licenses, which are required to legally do those activities, are not yet available as the rules and regulations have not been developed. ODA says the goal is to have farmers licensed and able to start planting hemp by spring 2020. As for CBD, the webpage says that it is now legal to sell properly inspected CBD products in Ohio. Note the “properly inspected” caveat. ODA wants to test CBD products for safety and accurate labeling before the product is sold to Ohio consumers. If they have not already done so, those wanting to sell CBD products should contact ODA to have their product tested. You can view the new webpage HERE.
Judge says $2 billion damages award is too much in Roundup case. A California state judge recently reduced the punitive damages award granted to Alva and Alberta Pilliod from $2 billion to $69 million, and reduced their compensatory damages from $55 million to $17 million. All combined, the couple would still receive $86.7 million in damages. As we previously discussed, the couple successfully convinced a jury that the glyphosate in Roundup significantly contributed to causing their non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In reducing the awards, the judge explained that the punitive damages were excessive and unconstitutional because they exceeded the U.S. Supreme Court’s restrictions. However, the judge denied Bayer’s request to strike the punitive damages award outright.
U.S. EPA denies petition to ban use of cholrpyrifos pesticide. Back in 2007, environmental groups petitioned to have the U.S. EPA revoke tolerances and registrations for the insecticide chlorpyrifos, citing harmful effects to people and nature. Without getting into the merits of the allegations, the timeline and history of the U.S. EPA’s decision is fairly interesting. The U.S. EPA had not completed its review of the chemical by 2015, so the groups took the agency to court, where they received a court order compelling the U.S. EPA to make a decision. The agency issued a proposed rule at the end of 2015 that would have revoked the tolerances; however, the federal court said that the U.S. EPA had not completed a full review nor properly responded to the 2007 petition. Even though it made a decision, the court wanted to see more evidence of a full administrative review. By the time the agency had a chance to fully review the chemical’s effects, the Obama EPA had turned into the Trump EPA. In March 2017, the U.S. EPA issued a denial order regarding the petition, which essentially threw out the petition. The environmental groups submitted an objection shortly after the denial order. By July 2019, the U.S. EPA had a chance to think some more and issued a final order denying the objections. As it stands now, the agency has decided not to revoke tolerances or registrations for chlorpyrifos. To read the agency’s final order denying the objections, click HERE.
Animal Disease Traceability program to require RFID tagging for cattle and bison by 2023. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is looking to fully bring animal disease traceability into the digital world, at least for beef and dairy cattle and bison. By requiring radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, the service says that animal health officials would be able to locate specific animals within hours of learning about a disease outbreak, significantly less than with paper records. Starting at the end of 2019, the USDA will stop providing free metal tags, but would allow vendors to produce official metal tags until the end of 2020. At that time, only RFID tags may be used as official tags. Starting on January 1, 2023, RFID tags will be required for beef and dairy cattle and bison moving interstate. Animals previously tagged with metal ear tags will have to be retagged, but feeder cattle and animals moving directly to slaughter will be exempt. To learn more, view the USDA’s “Advancing Animal Disease Traceability” factsheet HERE.
Senators want to fund more ag and food inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. Citing the national interest to protect the nation’s food supply, four U.S. Senators have introduced a bill that would provide the U.S. Customs and Border Protection with additional funding over the next three years. In each of the three fiscal years, the funds would be used to hire, train, and assign 240 additional agriculture specialists, 200 new agriculture technicians who provide support to the agriculture specialists, and 20 new canine teams. The personnel would work at U.S. ports of entry, including seaports, land ports, and airports across the country. If passed, S.2107 would require the Comptroller General of the United States to brief congressional committees one year after the bill’s enactment on how well federal agencies are doing at coordinating their border inspection efforts and how the agriculture specialists are being trained. The bill comes months after U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized nearly a million pounds of Chinese illegally smuggled pork from China, where African swine fever has ravaged the country’s pork industry. For more information about the bill, click HERE.
Cannabis decriminalization bill introduced in Congress. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) has introduced H.R. 3884 with the aim to do four things: 1) decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, 2) remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances schedules, 3) provide resources and rehabilitation for certain people impacted by the war on drugs, and 4) expunge certain criminal convictions with a cannabis connection. The bill currently has 30 co-sponsors, including 29 Democrats and 1 Republican. None of Ohio’s members of Congress have signed on as a co-sponsor at this time. The bill follows the recent change in status for hemp, which found favor in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills. However, that change in status was largely predicated on the argument that hemp is not marijuana, so it remains to be seen whether the political climate is ready to loosen restrictions on marijuana as well. For more information about the bill, click HERE.
The funny thing about a "budget bill" is that it’s not all about the budget. Many laws that are not related to the budget are created or revised within a budget bill. That’s the case with Ohio’s HB 166, the "budget bill" signed on August 18 by Governor Dewine. In the midst of the bill’s 2,602 pages are revisions to an important law for agricultural landowners—the “Right to Farm” Law.
Ohio’s Right to Farm Law, also referred to as the "Agricultural District Program," provides immunity from a civil nuisance claim made by those who move near an existing farm. To receive the immunity under the old law, the land must be enrolled as an “agricultural district” with the county auditor, agricultural activities have to be in place first, i.e., before the complaining party obtained its property interest, and the agricultural activities must not be in conflict with laws that apply to them or must be conducted according to generally accepted agricultural practices. The immunity comes in the form of an affirmative defense that a farmer can raise if sued for nuisance due to agricultural activities such as noise, odors, dust, and other potential interferences with neighbors. If the landowner can prove that the activities are covered by the Right to Farm law, the law requires dismissal of the nuisance lawsuit. For years, we’ve been encouraging farmers to enroll land in this program to protect themselves from those who move out near a farm and then complain that the farming activities are a nuisance.
The new revisions to the law in the budget bill change the requirements for the land and agricultural activities that can receive Right to Farm immunity. In addition to protecting agricultural activities on land that is enrolled with the county auditor as agricultural district land, the law will now also protect the following from nuisance claims:
- Agricultural activities on land devoted exclusively to agricultural use in accordance with section 5713.30 of the Revised Code, which is Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation Program (CAUV), and
- Agricultural activities conducted by a person pursuant to a lease agreement, written or otherwise.
These two provisions significantly expand the geographic scope of the Right to Farm law. A landowner may not have to take the step to actively enroll and re-enroll land in the agricultural district program in order to obtain Right to Farm immunity. Instead, the agricultural activities are automatically covered by the Right to Farm law if the land is enrolled in Ohio’s CAUV property tax reduction program or is under a lease agreement, presumably a farmland lease, whether that lease is in writing or is verbal. This means that any land in Ohio that is actively being used for commercial agricultural production will likely qualify for the Right to Farm law’s nuisance protection.
The budget bill also added new language to the Right to Farm law that clarifies that “agricultural activities” means “common agricultural practices.” The law specifically includes the following as “common agricultural practices:”
- The cultivation of crops or changing crop rotation;
- Raising of livestock or changing the species of livestock raised;
- Entering into and operating under a livestock contract;
- The storage and application of commercial fertilizer;
- The storage and application of manure;
- The storage and application of pesticides and other chemicals commonly used in agriculture;
- A change in corporate structure or ownership;
- An expansion, contraction, or change in operations;
- Any agricultural practice that is acceptable by local custom.
This new language answers a question that we’ve long heard from farmers: if I expand my farming operation or change it from the farming activities that I, my parents or grandparents have always done, will I still have Right to Farm protection? We couldn’t answer this question with assurance because the law is unclear about whether it would also protect such changes. Under the new law, the answer is clear: transitions to new or expanded agricultural activities will also receive Right to Farm immunity. The law also states that certain practices, such as storing and applying fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and manure, are “common agricultural practices.”
The final change to the Right to Farm law concerns a provision that addresses farmers suing other farmers for nuisance. Under the old law, Right to Farm immunity does not apply if the plaintiff who brings the nuisance law suit is also involved in agricultural production. That is, farmers don’t receive Right to Farm protection from nuisance claims by other farmers. The new law removes this provision. Under the revised law, farmers will be able to raise the Right to Farm law as an affirmative defense if sued for nuisance by another agricultural producer.
Many lawmakers who were focused on understanding and negotiating the financial provisions in Ohio’s recent budget bill may have missed the inclusion of changes to our Right to Farm law in the bill. Even so, with the passage of the budget bill, the legislature significantly expanded the reach of the Right to Farm Law and agricultural activities in Ohio now have broad protections from nuisance lawsuits.
Find the changes to Ohio’s Right to Farm Law--Ohio Revised Code 929.04, on pages 308 and 309 of HB 177, which is available on this page.
Tags: Right to Farm law; nuisance; budget bill; LEBOR; Lake Erie Bill of Rights; affirmative defenses; immunity
The OSU Extension Farm Office team has returned from the National Farm Business Conference in Wisconsin. We gained some fresh perspective on events beyond Ohio’s borders, but are happy to be back in slightly warmer weather. Our colleagues from across the nation presented on a variety of farm management topics, and we had a chance to discuss some of our recent projects. We also toured a number of dairy and agritourism farms, and of course ate lots of cheese curds. The fresh perspective means that it is time for a fresh Ag Law Harvest.
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
OSU Extension Ag Law Team featured on Agronomy and Farm Management Podcast. Recently we had a chance to talk with OSU Extension Educators Amanda Douridas and Elizabeth Hawkins, who together moderate the bi-weekly Agronomy and Farm Management Podcast for OSU Extension. We discussed the status of Ohio’s hemp bill and what we expect to happen in the near future with hemp regulation and production. Then we provided an update on the Drewes Farm Partnership v. City of Toledo lawsuit, which grapples with the legality of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Click HERE to listen to the podcast, and look for episode 28.
Minnesota focuses new commercial nitrogen fertilizer regulations on drinking water quality. In an effort to protect public drinking water sources, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has chosen to regulate the commercial application of fertilizer. The state has long regulated the application of manure, but not commercial nitrogen. The regulations focus on two types of geographic areas: regions with vulnerable soil (coarse soils, karst geology, or shallow bedrock) and farms located in Drinking Water Supply Management Areas. These management areas are designated based upon nitrate levels found in the drinking water. Starting in 2020, the state will ban the application of commercial nitrogen in these areas during the fall months and on frozen ground. Farms in any of the 30 Drinking Water Supply Management Areas would have to follow best management practices to start, but if nitrate levels continue to exceed state limits, then the state may impose additional restrictions in an area to reduce nitrogen pollution. For more information on Minnesota’s Groundwater Protection Rule, click HERE.
Federal court puts a hold on Bud Light’s “100 percent less corn syrup” ads. If they missed seeing it live during the Super Bowl, most people in the agricultural industry have at least seen the recent Bud Light advertising campaign that claims the beer uses no corn syrup while its competitors do. Shortly after the initial release of the ad, MillerCoors sued Anheuser-Busch, which makes Bud Light. MillerCoors wants a permanent injunction that would stop Bud Light from continuing its corn syrup advertising campaign, arguing that the advertisements are false and misleading to consumers. The first step to a permanent injunction is often a preliminary injunction, which makes a party act or not act in a certain way only while the case is pending. The judge presiding over the lawsuit granted MillerCoors’ motion for a preliminary injunction in part. The judge ordered Anheuser-Busch to temporarily stop using ads mentioning corn syrup if those ads do not contain language explaining that Bud Light does not use corn syrup in the brewing process. The judge’s act does not ban the ad that premiered during the Super Bowl. Rather it only blocks ads released later that claim Bud Light uses 100 percent less corn syrup than competitors like MillerCoors. Click HERE to view the complaint, and HERE to view the judge’s order.
It’s (mostly) official: USDA’s ERS and NIFA are headed to Kansas City. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the USDA’s selection of the Kansas City, Missouri region as the new headquarters for the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The location changed caused a great deal of controversy as some viewed it as a political move. However, the USDA has maintained that relocation will save millions of dollars over the next few years and put the agencies closer to a number of other USDA offices in Kansas City, such as the Farm Service Agency’s Commodity Operations Office. The Secretary reduced some of the controversy by scrapping plans to place the agencies under the USDA’s Chief Economist, who is a political appointee. Before we call the move a done deal, we must note that Congress could stop the plans. The U.S. House of Representatives might block the move via a Department of Agriculture-FDA spending bill currently under consideration. Click HERE to read Secretary Perdue’s press release.
Bayer announces multi-billion dollar hunt for glyphosate replacement. Somewhat buried in a press release titled “Bayer raises the bar in transparency, sustainability and engagement,” Bayer recently announced a substantial investment in its weed management research. Over the next ten years, the company plans to spend 5 billion euros, or roughly 5.6 billion U.S. dollars, to develop weed control products as alternatives to glyphosate. The announcement comes at a time with thousands of plaintiffs across the United States have claimed that the widely-used glyphosate caused their cancer. As we have previously discussed in the Ag Law Blog, the first three juries have in total awarded plaintiffs billions of dollars in damages. Bayer continues to fight the allegations and defend its product, but the press release marks the first time that Bayer has publically announced a search for an alternative to glyphosate. It remains to be seen whether the press release could have an impact in the lawsuits, but Bayer will likely try to keep the press release out of the trials by using court rules of evidence.
Ohio House passes amusement ride safety bill. County fair season has officially kicked off in Ohio, and some state lawmakers want to make sure that amusement rides at those fairs are safe. House Bill 189 seeks to heighten Ohio’s amusement ride safety inspection standards and impose additional duties on amusement ride owners. The bill would require the Ohio Department of Agriculture to adopt ride classification rules that identify types of rides needing more comprehensive inspection, along with the minimum number of inspectors and number of inspections for each ride. Further, the bill would require amusement ride owners to keep a manual for each amusement ride, and make it available upon request of an inspector. Amusement ride owners would also have to keep records, including documents and photographs, of all major repairs along with all locations where the owner stored or operated each ride. The bill includes an emergency clause, which would allow it to take effect as soon as the Governor signs it. Lawmakers named the bill “Tyler’s Law” after the young man who died following an equipment breakdown at the Ohio State Fair in 2017. Click HERE for more information about the bill.