Well, it’s been a while since we’ve written about the Waters of the United States (WOTUS), so everyone had to know we were overdue for WOTUS news!
On December 11, 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the Trump Administration’s so-called “straightforward” new definition of WOTUS under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Publication of the proposed rule was delayed due to the federal government shutdown in December and January. The proposed rule was finally published in the Federal Register on February 14, 2019. Interested parties can comment on the proposed WOTUS rule until April 15, 2019. Information on how to comment can be found here, and the proposed rule in its entirety can be found here.
Out with the old WOTUS…
The new definition would replace the 2015 definition of WOTUS promulgated under the Obama Administration. The 2015 definition is codified at 33 CFR 328. The 2015 definition defined waters of the United States as:
- 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:
- Which are or could be used by interstate or foreign travelers for recreational or other purposes; or
- From which fish or shellfish are or could be taken and sold in interstate or foreign commerce; or
- Which are used or could be used for industrial purpose by industries in interstate commerce;
- All impoundments of waters otherwise defined as waters of the United States under the definition;
- Tributaries of waters identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (4) of this section;
- The territorial seas;
- Wetlands adjacent to waters (other than waters that are themselves wetlands) identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (6) of this section.
- Waters of the United States do not include prior converted cropland. Notwithstanding the determination of an area’s status as prior converted cropland by any other Federal agency, for the purposes of the Clean Water Act, the final authority regarding Clean Water Act jurisdiction remains with the EPA.
The 2015 definition also noted that “[w]aste treatment systems, including treatment ponds or lagoons designed to meet requirements of CWA…are not waters of the United States” (emphasis added).
...In with the new WOTUS
The Trump Administration’s new proposed definition of WOTUS would make significant changes to the definition listed above. Under the new proposed rule, section (a) of §328.3 would define waters of the United States as:
- Waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including the territorial seas and waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
- Tributaries of waters identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section;
- Ditches that satisfy any of the conditions identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section, ditches constructed in a tributary or that relocate or alter a tributary as long as those ditches also satisfy the conditions of the tributary definition, and ditches constructed in an adjacent wetland as long as those ditches also satisfy the conditions of the tributary definition;
- Lakes and ponds that satisfy any of the conditions identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section, lakes and ponds that contribute perennial or intermittent flow to a water identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section in a typical year either directly or indirectly through a water(s) identified in paragraphs (a)(2) through (6) of this section or through water features identified in paragraph (b) of this section so long as those water features convey perennial or intermittent flow downstream, and lakes and ponds that are flooded by a water identified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (5) of this section in a typical year;
- Impoundments of waters identified in paragraphs (a)(1) through (4) and (6) of this section; and
- Adjacent wetlands to waters identified in paragraphs (a) (1) through (5) of this section.
Every other type of water in this proposed definition relates back to the waters described in (1), which the EPA describes as “traditional navigable waters.” For example, tributaries that are WOTUS would be those bodies of water that empty into or connect to traditional navigable waters. Similarly, lakes and ponds are WOTUS under the definition if they are traditional navigable waters themselves, or if they flow regularly into traditional navigable waters. An EPA fact sheet, available here, is very helpful in understanding what is included under the proposed WOTUS definition. It describes the six proposed categories of WOTUS in layman’s terms, and provides examples of bodies of water that fall under each category.
The newly proposed rule also greatly expands the list of waters that are not waters of the United States in section (b):
- Waters or water features that are not identified in paragraphs (a) through (6) of this section;
- Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
- Ephemeral features and diffuse stormwater run-off, including directional sheet flow over upland;
- Ditches that are not identified in paragraph (a)(3) of this section;
- Prior converted cropland;
- Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for rice or cranberry growing, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
- Artificial lakes and ponds constructed in upland (including water storage reservoirs, farm and stock watering ponds, and log cleaning ponds) which are not identified in paragraph (a)(4) or (a)(5) of this section;
- Water-filled depressions created in upland incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
- Stormwater control features excavated or constructed in upland to convey, treat, infiltrate or store stormwater run-off;
- Wastewater recycling structures constructed in upland, such as detention, retention and infiltration basins and ponds, and groundwater recharge basins; and
- Waste treatment systems.
Notable differences between 2015 rule and proposed rule
Just glancing at the two rules, it is obvious that there are major differences in how WOTUS is defined. EPA has a useful fact sheet (highly recommended reading) outlining the “key proposed changes” and how they compare to the 2015 WOTUS rule, as well as to the pre-2015 WOTUS rule. Overall, it appears that the number of water bodies considered WOTUS would decrease under the proposed rule. EPA argues that limiting the number of waters classified as WOTUS would give more power to the states to regulate waters as they see fit.
One major change is that under the proposed rule, tributaries that are “ephemeral” (meaning they’re not around for a great deal of time, and/or may be there because of rainfall or snowmelt, etc.), are not considered to be WOTUS. Similarly, the number of ditches considered to be WOTUS would decrease under the new rule. Upland ditches and ephemeral ditches would no longer fall under WOTUS. The number of wetlands considered WOTUS would also take a hit under the new rule. Wetlands would either have to “abut” other WOTUS or “have a direct hydrological surface connection” to WOTUS in a “typical year” to fall under the new definition. Furthermore, wetlands would no longer be considered to be “adjacent,” and therefore connected to WOTUS, if they are “physically separated from jurisdictional waters by a berm, dike, or other barrier.” Finally, you guessed it— the number of lakes and ponds considered WOTUS would also be reduced, since they would no longer connect through “adjacent” wetlands.
It’s important to remember that this new WOTUS rule is not currently effective—they are just proposed rules, open to public comment. In the meantime, due to litigation, what qualifies as WOTUS depends on which state you live in, as we discussed in Harvest posts here and here. EPA has a map depicting which definition of WOTUS currently applies where—in some states, the 2015 rule applies, and in others the pre-2015 rule applies. Obama’s 2015 rule applies in Ohio at this time. If the proposed rule makes it through the rulemaking process and goes into effect, it will replace the 2015 and pre-2015 rules, and barring any other lawsuits, will apply nationwide. The ultimate implementation of this rule is anything but certain; changes and challenges to the rule are likely to occur. The Ag Law Blog will keep readers updated on all the WOTUS discussion yet to come.
We can’t say that Lake Erie is back in the news, because lately it hasn’t left the news. However, there is a new lawsuit in federal court that seeks further action from either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or the Ohio EPA regarding Lake Erie water quality. Filed on February 7, 2019 by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (“ELPC”) and the Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, this new lawsuit alleges that the U.S. EPA improperly signed off on action taken by the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without implementing a Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) to restrict discharges such as agricultural runoff. The plaintiffs weren’t necessarily unhappy about the designation, but they were not happy about the lack of a TMDL.
Designating a waterway as impaired indicates low water quality, and triggers requirements to take action to improve water quality. A state must classify its waterways, and that classification guides the selection of which types of regulations to impose and the priority of fixing a waterway. The Ohio EPA’s designation of Lake Erie as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act was motivated by a previous lawsuit brought by the ELPC. In that lawsuit, a federal court ordered the U.S. EPA to review the Ohio EPA’s compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, which is something the plaintiffs in this new case want the court to order again. That case remains pending, and is cited as Environmental Law and Policy Center v. U.S. EPA, Case No. 17-cv-1514 (N.D. Ohio).
The plaintiffs allege that the new designation alone is not enough, and that the Ohio EPA must take more action. The complaint in the new lawsuit alleges that the Ohio EPA must establish a TMDL for western Lake Erie. Under the federal Clean Water Act, TMDLs identify the maximum amounts of a pollutant that a body of water can handle in order to meet water quality standards. The U.S. EPA describes these as a “starting point or planning tool for restoring water quality” that states often use as targets when crafting comprehensive plans to attain water quality. The complaint alleges that the Ohio EPA must prioritize creating a TMDL for western Lake Erie, but the Ohio EPA has said that it hopes to pursue an alternative approach to water quality attainment without the need for a TMDL. The plaintiffs do not believe that this is enough.
But why then is the new lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, and not the Ohio EPA? Congress granted the U.S. EPA oversight over water quality for federally navigable waters, or Waters of the United States, which include Lake Erie. The complaint alleges that by approving Ohio’s designation of Lake Erie without a plan and timeline to reach water quality standards, the U.S. EPA made an improper and arbitrary decision under the federal Clean Water Act. The plaintiffs want the U.S. EPA to rescind its approval of the Ohio EPA’s action. After this, the U.S. EPA would have to require the Ohio EPA to submit a new binding plan to bring Lake Erie into attainment with water quality standards, or the U.S. EPA can decide that Ohio has refused to submit a plan and exercise its authority to create its own plan for Ohio. The complaint also seeks an award of attorney’s fees and costs to cover the expenses incurred by the plaintiffs in bringing the lawsuit.
Click HERE to view the complaint. The case is cited as Environmental Law & Policy Center v. U.S. EPA, Case No. 3:19-cv-00295 (N.D. Ohio). Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for more updates on litigation involving Lake Erie.
Lake Erie once again made headlines when the Ohio Supreme Court recently decided that a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” (LEBOR) initiative could be placed on the Toledo ballot on February 26, 2019. The decision raised alarm in Ohio’s agricultural community and fears that, if passed, the measure will result in litigation for farmers in the Lake Erie watershed.
The OSU Extension Agricultural and Resource Law Program took a close look at LEBOR. Specifically, we wanted to know:
- What does Toledo’s Lake Erie Bill of Rights petition mean?
- What does the petition language say?
- What happened in the legal challenges to keep the petition off the ballot?
- Have similar efforts been successful, and if not, why not?
- Who has rights in Lake Erie?
- What rights do business entities have?
We examine all of these questions, plus a number of frequently asked questions, in a new format called “In the Weeds.” While many of our readers know of our blog posts and law bulletins, explaining this issue required something different. Using “In the Weeds” is a way for us to dig into a current legal issue more in depth.
For answers to the questions above and more, CLICK HERE to view the new “In the Weeds: The Lake Erie Bill of Rights Ballot Initiative.”
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate
The Ohio Supreme Court recently decided that a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” initiative could be placed before Toledo residents in a special election on February 26, 2019. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) is a proposed amendment to the Toledo City Charter. Josh Abernathy, an opponent to the initiative, brought the lawsuit seeking a “writ of prohibition”—meaning he wanted the Ohio Supreme Court to determine that the Lucas County Board of Elections must remove LEBOR from the special election ballot.
The Supreme Court began its analysis in the case by explaining that in order to obtain a writ of prohibition in an election case, the party bringing suit must prove all of the following:
- The board of elections exercised quasi-judicial power,
- The exercise of that power was unlawful, and
- The party bringing suit has no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.
The Supreme Court examined the three elements in reverse order. The Court quickly answered the third element in the affirmative—reasoning that because the election was so imminent, Abernathy did “not have an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law,” because any other suit, such as an injunction, would not be finished prior to the election.
The Supreme Court determined that the second element was not satisfied. The Court reasoned that the “exercise of power” was not “unlawful,” because “a board of elections has no legal authority to review the substance of a proposed charter amendment and has no discretion to block the measure from the ballot based on an assessment of its suitability.” In doing so, the Supreme Court pointed to past cases it had decided, as well as the language in Article XVIII, Section 9 of the Ohio Constitution, which must be read with Section 8, both provided above. Section 9 says that a charter amendment can “be submitted to” the voters “by a two-thirds vote of the legislative authority,” as well as through a petition signed by 10 percent of the voters in the municipality. Then, as is explained above, the board of elections must pass an ordinance to include the proposed amendment on the ballot. After that, the Supreme Court found, based on precedent and the language of the Constitution, the only responsibility of the board of elections is to put the charter amendment on the ballot—the board has no other authority.
Finally, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that since the second element was not met, there was no reason to address the first element—whether or not “the board’s exercise of authority was quasi-judicial.” Abernathy also argued that the board of elections should not have put LEBOR on the ballot due to the doctrine of claim preclusion—meaning that since the Court had already decided a case concerning LEBOR, the board should not have the power to place it on the ballot afterwards. The Supreme Court disagreed, pointing once again to the language in the Ohio Constitution, which effectively says that “the board had no power to keep the proposed charter amendment off the ballot for any reason, including claim preclusion.” In sum, the Supreme Court decided that based on a reading of case law and the Ohio Constitution, the board of elections in Toledo had no option other than placing LEBOR on the ballot. This outcome does not necessarily mean that if Toledo passes LEBOR, it is a done deal; if and when it passes, courts could determine it is unconstitutional and/or beyond the scope of the city’s power.
The case is cited as State ex rel. Abernathy v. Lucas Cty. Bd. Of Elections, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-201, and the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2019/2019-Ohio-201.pdf.
We are full steam ahead in 2019, and so far we have held to our new year’s resolutions. However, we want to take a quick look in the rearview mirror. Ohio legislators passed a number of bills in 2018 that affect Ohio agriculture. They range from multi-parcel auction laws to broadband grants, and oil & gas tax exemptions to hunting licenses. Here are some highlights of bills that the Ohio General Assembly passed and former Governor Kasich signed in 2018.
- House Bill 500, titled “Change township law.” As mentioned in a previous blog post, the Ohio General Assembly made a number of generally minor changes to Ohio’s township laws with House Bill 500. The changes included, among other things, requiring a board of township trustees to select a chairperson annually, modifying how vacating township roads and name changes are carried out, allowing fees for appealing a zoning board decision, clarifying how a board can suspend a member of a zoning commission or board of appeals, and removing the requirement for limited home rule townships to submit a zoning amendment or resolution to a planning commission. To learn about more of the changes that were made, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s H.B. 500 webpage here.
- House Bill 480, titled “Establish requirements for multi-parcel auctions.” The Ohio Department of Agriculture regulates auctions, and H.B. 480 gave ODA authority to regulate a new classification of auctions: the multi-parcel auction. Revised Code § 4707.01(Q) will define these as “any auction of real or personal property in which multiple parcels or lots are offered for sale in various amalgamations, including as individual parcels or lots, combinations of parcels or lots, and all parcels or lots as a whole.” For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s H.B. 480 webpage here.
- House Bill 522, titled “Allow outdoor refreshment area to include F permit holders.” A municipality or township may create a “designated outdoor refreshment area” where people may walk around the area with their opened beer or liquor. Previously, only holders of certain D-class permits (bars, restaurants, and clubs) and A-class permits (alcohol manufacturers) could allow their patrons to partake in a designated open area. H.B. 522 will allow holders of an F-class liquor permit to also allow their patrons to roam in the designated area with an open container. F-class liquor permits are for festival-type events of a short duration. However, holders of either permits D-6 (allowing Sunday sales) or D-8 (allowing sales of growlers of beer or of tasting samples) will no longer be eligible for the open container exception. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s H.B. 522 webpage, here.
- Senate Bill 51, titled “Facilitate Lake Erie shoreline improvement.” As mentioned in a previous blog post, the primary purpose of Senate Bill 51 was to add projects for Lake Erie shoreline improvement to the list of public improvements that may be financed by a special improvement district. S.B. 51 also instructed the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) to establish programs to assist in phosphorous reduction in the Western Lake Erie Basin. This adds to the previous instructions given to ODA in S.B. 299 regarding the Soil and Water Phosphorous Program. S.B. 51 further provided funding for a number of projects, ranging from flood mitigation to MLS stadium construction. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s S.B. 51 webpage here.
- Senate Bill 299, titled “Finance projects for protection of Lake Erie and its basin.” Largely an appropriations bill to fund projects, S.B. 299 primarily targeted water quality projects and research. ODA received an additional $3.5 million to support county soil and water conservation districts in the Western Lake Erie Basin, plus $20 million to establish water quality programs under a Soil and Water Phosphorous Program. Further, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (“ODNR”) received an additional $10 million to support projects that divert dredging materials from Lake Erie. Stone Laboratory, a sea grant research program, received an additional $2.65 million. The bill also created a mentorship program called OhioCorps, and set aside money for grants to promote broadband internet access. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s S.B. 299 webpage here.
- Senate Bill 257, titled “Changes to hunting and fishing laws.” ODNR may now offer multi-year and lifetime hunting and fishing licenses to Ohio residents under S.B. 257. Further, the bill creates a resident apprentice senior hunting license and an apprentice senior fur taker permit, and removes the statutory limits on the number of these permits a person may purchase. The bill also creates a permit for a Lake Erie Sport Fishing District, which may be issued to nonresidents to fish in the portions of Lake Erie and connected waters under Ohio’s control. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s S.B. 257 webpage here.
- House Bill 225, titled “Regards plugging idle or orphaned wells.” H.B. 225 creates a reporting system where a landowner may notify ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources about idle and orphaned oil or gas wells. Upon notification, the Division must inspect the well within 30 days. After the inspection, the Division must determine the priority for plugging the well, and may contract with a third party to plug the well. To fund this, the bill increases appropriations to the Oil and Gas Well Fund, and increases the portion of the fund that must go to plugging oil and gas wells. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s H.B. 225 webpage here.
- House Bill 430, titled “Expand sales tax exemption for oil and gas production property.” Certain goods and services directly used for oil and gas production have been exempted from sales and use taxes, and H.B. 430 clarifies what does and does not qualify for the exemption. Additionally, property used to control water pollution may qualify for the property, sales, and use tax exemptions if approved by ODNR as a qualifying property. H.B. 430 also extends the moratorium on licenses and transfers of licenses for fireworks manufacturers and wholesalers. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s H.B. 430 webpage here.
- Senate Bill 229, titled “Modify Board of Pharmacy and controlled substances laws.” The Farm Bill’s opening the door for industrial hemp at the federal level has led to a lot of conversations about controlled substances, which we addressed in a previous blog post. Once its changes take effect, Ohio’s S.B. 229 will remove the controlled substances schedules from the Ohio Revised Code, which involve the well-known numbering system of schedules I, II, III, IV, and V. Instead, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy will have rulemaking authority to create schedules and classify drugs and compounds. Prior to the removal of the schedules from the Revised Code, the Board of Pharmacy must create the new schedules by rule. S.B. 229 also mentions cannabidiols, and lists them as schedule V under the current system if the specific cannabidiol drug has approval from the Food and Drug Administration. For more information, visit the Ohio General Assembly’s S.B. 229 webpage here.
The end of 2018 effectively marked the end of the 132nd Ohio General Assembly, and 2019 marks the start of the 133rd Ohio General Assembly. Any pending bills from the 132nd General Assembly that were not passed will have to be reintroduced if legislators wish to proceed with those bills. Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for legal updates affecting agriculture from the Ohio General Assembly.
Less than a week into the administration of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a new approach to watersheds in distress has emerged. Director Dorothy Pelanda assumed the helm of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) earlier this week. (Read more about the new director below). By Tuesday, ODA had changed the status of the proposed watersheds in distress rules in the Register of Ohio to “To Be Refiled.”
Watersheds in Distress Proposed Rules “To Be Refiled”
The change in status of the proposed rules signals that ODA plans to change its earlier proposal. The Register of Ohio, which is where state agencies post rules and proposed rules, defines a proposed rule with a “To Be Refiled” status as one “that has been temporarily removed from JCARR consideration by the rule-filing agency.” Until a sponsoring agency acts, the proposed rule remains in the “To Be Refiled” status and off of the agenda of the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (“JCARR”). As we mentioned in a previous blog post, JCARR was set to consider the controversial proposal at its January 22, 2019 meeting. However, the change in status of the proposed rules means that JCARR will not consider them until ODA takes further action. ODA may revise the proposal, refile as-is, take no action, or withdraw the proposal.
Readers may recall from a previous blog post that the Kasich administration sought to expand the number of watersheds designated as “in distress,” which would impose additional regulations and restrictions on farmers who apply manure and nutrients to the land. Further, the proposal would have required impacted farmers to submit a nutrient management plan to ODA, and ODA would have to audit at least 5 percent of those plans. ODA’s Soil and Water Conversation Division held a hearing on November 21st, and a number of stakeholders attended to provide comments. A summary report of the hearing is available here. Currently, the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed is the only watershed in Ohio subject to the additional requirements.
Dorothy Pelanda Assumes Directorship of Ohio Department of Agriculture
Director Pelanda steps into Governor Mike DeWine’s cabinet as the 39th Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. She served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 2011 until the end of the previous General Assembly, and held leadership positions within the Republican caucus. Prior to her appointment to the Ohio House, Director Pelanda practiced law in Union County. She is a graduate of the University of Akron School of Law, Miami University, and Marysville High School. Director Pelanda is the first woman to serve as the Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. For more information about Director Pelanda, visit ODA’s website here.
The legislative Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR) has voted to send the "watersheds in distress" rule revisions back to the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). JCARR reviews administrative rules to make sure they follow legal requirements, which we explained in a previous blog post. The "watersheds in distress" rules seek to address agricultural nutrient impacts on water quality, also explained in an earlier post. At its meeting yesterday, JCARR members voted 8 to 1 to recommend that ODA revise and refile the rules for consideration at JCARR's next meeting on January 22, 2019.
The January 22 meeting date efectively removes Governor Kasich's administration from the rules revision. Kasich issued an executive order last July directing his agencies to prepare the controversial rule package. But the incoming DeWine Administration will control the fate of the rules since DeWine takes office on January 14, 2019. JCARR is apparently counting on the new administration to take a different approach on agricultural nutrient pollution reduction.
"There will be a new administration and we'll have maybe more productive talks," stated JCARR's chair, Sen. Joe Uecker (R-Loveland). "The DeWine Administration has demonstrated an interest on working with stakeholders on this issue."
The lack of stakeholder involvement was a common concern voiced by JCARR members, who stated that the rules had been rushed and did not involve all of the interested parties. Several committee members also suggested that the rules are inconsistent with legislative intent and will have a significant adverse impact on farmers. The Ohio Soybean Association, Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association, and Ohio Farm Bureau echoed those criticisms to JCARR members while several local residents, local groups and the Ohio Environmental Council testified that the rules would not sufficiently protect water quality.
If ODA fails to refile the rules proposal for the January meeting, JCARR will have 31 days to recomend that the Ohio General Assembly invalidate the rules. That action would allow each chamber five days to pass a resolution invalidating the rules; if the concurrent resolution does not pass within that time period, the rules would stand. Alternatively, ODA could remove the proposal from JCARR's agenda and refile revised rules at a later date, a likely course of action for the incoming DeWine administration.
Written by: Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, and Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
GIPSA as we know it is no more. A rule was released November 29, 2018 by the USDA as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to reorganize the agency. Of particular note, the rule, which was published in the Federal Register, eliminates the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) as a “stand-alone agency.” According to the GIPSA website (which is currently still available here), the agency “facilitate[d] the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds, and related agricultural products, and promote[d] fair and competitive trading practices for the overall benefit of consumers and American agriculture.” The new administrative rule relocates GIPSA responsibilities to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Administrator. The change is not without controversy, as some farmers and agricultural groups argue that the protection of farmers through fair trading practices is antithetical to AMS, an agency responsible for marketing and promoting commodities. The rule is available here.
Supreme Court considers when habitat is “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of private landowners when it recently determined that protected "critical habitat" for an endangered species must be habitat in which the species could actually survive. The Court's decision in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service et al involved the dusky gopher frog, an endangered species that once lived throughout the coastal regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Some of the habitat deemed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to be protected "critical habitat" for the frog was not actually occupied by the frog, and was instead being used for commercial timber production. Weyerhaeuser and other affected landowners brought suit, claiming that the land couldn't be critical habitat because the frog could not survive there without significant human intervention, such as intensive tree planting. The Court agreed that critical habitat "cannot include areas where the species could not currently survive." Weyerhouser and other landowners had also challenged the agency's cost-benefit analysis for the critical habitat designation, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and stated that it had no power to review the FWS analysis. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that federal courts can review an agency's economic impact analysis to determine whether the agency abused its discretion or was arbitrary and capricious. With that guidance, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit for further proceedings. The Supreme Court’s decision is here.
A second judge finds that Trump’s WOTUS repeal was not procedurally sound. Surprise, surprise, the WOTUS, or “waters of the United States” rule is in the news again. In many previous blog posts, we have chronicled decisions on the ever-present WOTUS rule (search “WOTUS” in our search bar for our other posts). Readers will recall that last February, the Trump administration published a new rule which was meant to repeal Obama’s WOTUS rule and replace it with the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS until a new definition could be developed. Trump’s rule was published on February 6, 2018, giving the administration until 2020 to come up with a new definition. On August 16, 2018, a district court judge in South Carolina found that the Trump administration did not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it enacted the February 6 rule. Similarly, on November 26, 2018, Judge John Coughenour in the Western District of Washington found that “by restricting the content of the comments solicited and considered [about the February rule], the Agencies deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on relevant and significant issues in violation of the APA’s notice and comment requirements.” Rulemaking that violates the APA is invalid. Judge Coughenour’s full decision is available here.
Both the South Carolina and the Washington state district court decisions are applicable to the entire country. As a result, one might think that the Obama WOTUS rule should be in effect nationwide. However, it is important to remember that in some states, there are injunctions against carrying out Obama’s WOTUS rule. This means that it cannot be carried out in those states, and that the pre-2015 rule is actually effective in those states. EPA has a map depicting which version of the rule applies where. Uncertainty and WOTUS seem to be synonymous these days. The only thing we know for certain is that the WOTUS saga is not over, meaning things are likely to change again in the future.
Ohio Treasurer pioneers paying taxes with Bitcoin. Any business operating in Ohio may now pay certain taxes to the state of Ohio using Bitcoin, as recently announced by outgoing Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. The move makes Ohio the first state to accept Bitcoin as a form of tax payment. The official press release expressed hopes that other cryptocurrencies could be used, but at this time only Bitcoin will be accepted. Cryptocurrencies are said to be secure because they use blockchain, which is a digital register of transactions and information that is difficult to modify because changes to the register cannot be done by any single user. The Treasurer’s Office has specified 23 different taxes that can be paid with cryptocurrencies, including: Commercial Activity Taxes (CAT), consumer’s use taxes, Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) taxes, Pass-Thru Entity (PTE) taxes, sales taxes, and more. Paying with cryptocurrency is being accepted as an additional form of payment, as businesses can still pay with ACH credit, ACH debit, check, and money order. However, the state will not keep the cryptocurrency, but instead will use a third party to cash out the Bitcoin and convert it into U.S. dollars before depositing them into the state’s account. For more information, visit www.OhioCrypto.com or view the Treasurer’s Frequently Asked Questions page here.
Bayer prepares to bear with multiple jury trials over Monsanto’s glyphosate. Bayer AG continues to battle more and more plaintiffs claiming that their health problems were caused as a direct result of Monsanto’s Roundup and glyphosate. Another 600 plaintiffs have reportedly sued Bayer/Monsanto in the past two months since we last reported the number of lawsuits initiated with this argument. Following the multi-billion dollar verdict in California state court late this summer, more jury trials are set to begin. Over 620 cases have been filed in federal court, and the first case to reach a federal jury is now set for trial in San Francisco in February 2019. Another California state court case has been fast-tracked to be heard in March 2019 because of the condition and age of the plaintiffs. Yet another case is expected to be scheduled in Missouri state court for sometime later in 2019. The cases largely depend upon a plaintiff’s ability to convince a jury that his or her cancer was more likely than not directly caused by glyphosate. This question because controversial in 2015 when the United Nation’s World Health Organization released a report stating that the widely used herbicide is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a release in 2017 saying that its own findings demonstrate that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic in humans.
Is this pumpkin pie made of pumpkin? Thanksgiving dinner conversations often involve at least one debate for many families. Prompted by recent coverage in news outlets like the Wall Street Journal, one of the topics this year was whether grandma’s pumpkin pie is made of pumpkin, and whether it should be. At one end of the debate are those who say that pumpkin pie must be made from pumpkins, while others say that closely related squashes have a better flavor and consistency that make a pie taste the way a “pumpkin pie” should taste. Central to this debate is the status of firm-shelled, golden-fleshed sweet squash, which currently makes up a large portion of the market for “canned pumpkin.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a long-standing policy saying that labeling the golden-fleshed, sweet squash as “pumpkin” complies with the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. Since 1938, the FDA has “consistently advised canners that we would not initiate regulatory action solely because of their using the designation “pumpkin” or “canned pumpkin” on labels for articles prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkins.” The FDA explains that allowing current labeling practice does not seem to mislead or deceive consumers. While the FDA declines to take a stand on the issue, families are free to continue to debate which ingredients make for the best pumpkin pie.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate
Over the last several months, three nuisance cases have been decided against Smithfield Foods in federal court in North Carolina. The juries in the cases have found Smithfield’s large farms, with thousands of hogs, and the odor, traffic, and flies that come along with them, to be a nuisance to neighboring landowners. Smithfield has been ordered to pay hefty damages to the neighbors, and more cases against the company remain to be decided. Given the outcomes of the cases that have been decided thus far, farmers and landowners in Ohio might be wondering how Ohio law compares to North Carolina law as pertains to agricultural nuisances.
Ohio’s Right-to-Farm law
Many states, including both Ohio and North Carolina, have “right-to-farm” legislation, which in part is meant to protect agriculture from nuisance lawsuits such as those filed against Smithfield. While nearly every state has a right-to-farm statute, they do differ in language and how they go about protecting agriculture.
Ohio farmers have right-to-farm protection in two parts of the Revised Code. ORC Chapter 929 establishes “agricultural districts.” Generally, in order to place land in an agricultural district, the owner of the land must file an application with the county auditor. Certain requirements must be met in order for an application to be accepted. Slightly different rules apply if the land in question is within a municipal corporation or is being annexed by a municipality. If the application is accepted, the land is placed in an agricultural district for five years. The owner may submit a renewal application after that time is up.
Being part of an agricultural district in Ohio can help farmers and landowners to defend against civil lawsuits. ORC 929.04 reads:
In a civil action for nuisances involving agricultural activities, it is a complete defense if:
- The agricultural activities were conducted within an agricultural district;
- Agricultural activities were established within the agricultural district prior to the plaintiff’s activities or interest on which the action is based;
- The plaintiff was not involved in agricultural production; and
- The agricultural activities were not in conflict with federal, state, and local laws and rules relating to the alleged nuisance or were conducted in accordance with generally accepted agriculture practices.
The ORC’s chapter on nuisances provides additional protection for those “engaged in agriculture-related activities.” Under ORC 3767.13, people who are practicing agricultural activities “outside a municipal corporation, in accordance with generally accepted agricultural practices, and in such a manner so as not to have a substantial, adverse effect on public health, safety, or welfare” are typically exempt from claims of nuisance due to farm noise, smells, etc.
North Carolina’s Right-to-Farm law
Much like Ohio, North Carolina farm land can be part of an “agricultural district.” North Carolina’s preservation of farmland law is available here. This program is meant to protect agricultural land—land that is part of an agricultural district is must be used for agriculture for at least 10 years. However, unlike Ohio’s law, North Carolina does not specifically spell out that land in agricultural districts will be protected from nuisance suits when the landowner follows the rules of the agricultural district. North Carolina’s law does state that one of the purposes of agricultural districts is to “increase protection from nuisance suits and other negative impacts on properly managed farms,” but unlike Ohio, it does not explicitly state that being part of an agricultural district is a defense to a nuisance lawsuit.
North Carolina also has a statute which specifically spells out the right-to-farm. In response to the recent jury decisions, however, North Carolina has changed its right-to-farm law. The original law read:
- No agricultural or forestry operation or any of its appurtenances shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation after the operation has been in operation for more than one year, when such an operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began.
(a1) The provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall not apply when the plaintiff demonstrates that the agricultural or forestry operation has undergone a fundamental change. A fundamental change does not include any of the following:
- A change in ownership or size.
- An interruption of farming for a period of no more than three years.
- Participation in a government-sponsored agricultural program.
- Employment of new technology.
- A change in the type of agricultural or forestry product produced.
The original law did not protect agricultural operations if their actions were negligent or improper. The original law is available here.
Following the first decision against Smithfield, the North Carolina legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to implement amendments to the state’s right-to-farm law. In the amendments, available here (sections 106-701 and 106-702), the legislature substantially changed the language of the law, making what constitutes a nuisance much more explicit and dependent on certain factors. What is more, the new version of the law places limits on when plaintiffs can recover punitive damages for a private nuisance action.
A comparison of the Ohio and North Carolina’s sections of legislation promoting the “right-to-farm” shows how different the two states are. Ohio’s legislative language makes it obvious that the meaning of the law is to protect agriculture from nuisance suits—by specifically stating that being in an agricultural district is a complete defense to nuisance, and that otherwise, agriculture is generally exempt from nuisance suits. North Carolina’s law concerning agricultural districts does not specifically state that being in such a district is a defense to nuisance, instead, it simply expresses the hope that districts will “increase protection from nuisance suits.” Furthermore, while North Carolina’s original right-to-farm law stated that agricultural operations do not “become a nuisance” due to changed conditions in the community, that language is not very specific. Ohio’s agricultural district language lays out exactly what must be done to have a complete defense against a nuisance lawsuit; North Carolina’s language in multiple parts of the General Statutes does not have the same degree of specificity.
Permit as a defense to nuisance
In addition to the right-to-farm law, under ORC 903.13, those owning, operating, or responsible for concentrated animal feeding facilities in Ohio have an affirmative defense to a private civil action for nuisance against them if the CAFO is in compliance with best management practices established in the installation permit or permit to operate and the agricultural activities do not violate federal, state, and local laws governing nuisances. North Carolina does not appear to have similar language protecting permitted farms in its General Statutes.
Other factors that may come into play
In the lawsuits against Smithfield farms, the lawyers for the plaintiffs (neighboring landowners) have continuously asserted that Smithfield has “means and ability” to “reduce the nuisance from existing facilities” by ending the use of “lagoon and sprayfield” systems at their farms. Plaintiffs stress that not only is Smithfield Foods, Inc. a large, wealthy, multinational company, but that they have also changed their lagoon and sprayfield practices outside of North Carolina. In lagoon and sprayfield systems, all waste is collected in an open-air lagoon and then sprayed on fields as fertilizer. The practice was first banned for new construction in North Carolina in 1997, and in 2007, the state permanently banned the practice for newly constructed swine facilities. Although many of the facilities in question were opened before any ban on the construction of lagoon and sprayfield facilities, the plaintiffs contend that changes made in other states mean Smithfield can afford to change in North Carolina. The ban on new lagoon and sprayfield systems in North Carolina, and evidence that Smithfield has used different practices to reduce the smell from the farms in other states, likely helped the juries in the cases that have been tried to date find that the farms are a nuisance to their neighbors. The above argument is something operators of livestock facilities in Ohio should be aware of. Although Ohio has not specifically banned lagoon and sprayfield systems like North Carolina has, the ability to change the system could still potentially be used to argue nuisance. Ohio operators are supposed to follow best management practices and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Field Office Technical guide when applying and storing manure, which include ways to reduce odor from manure and other applications, as well as reducing other types of nutrient pollution. Following such guidelines would likely help operators in any argument against nuisance.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate
Readers of the Ag Law Blog will recall our previous posts regarding Governor Kasich’s “watersheds in distress” executive order and the rules proposed to accompany the order. The proposed rules were recently filed and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission continues to hold meetings about which watersheds will actually be designated as “distressed.”
“Watersheds in Distress” rules are filed and hearing is scheduled
On October 15, 2018, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) filed the proposed watersheds in distress rules in the Register of Ohio, which would make changes to Ohio Administrative Code Sections 901:13-1-11, 901:13-1-19, and 901:13-1-99. A hearing on the proposed amendments will be held on November 20, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. in the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Bromfield Administration Building, Auditorium 141, 8995 East Main Street, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, 43068-3399. Interested members of the public are invited to attend and participate. Written comments are also welcomed, and information about where to send such comments can be found here. Below, we will outline the proposed changes to each rule in turn.
- OAC 901:13-1-11
OAC 901:13-1-11 currently only applies to land application of manure in watersheds in distress. The proposed changes to the rule would also make it applicable to the land application of “nutrients,” or “nitrogen, phosphorous, or a combination of both,” in watersheds in distress. Under the proposed amendments, those responsible “for the land application of nutrients on more than fifty acres” of agricultural land would not be allowed to “surface apply nutrients:”
On snow-covered or frozen soil;
When the top two inches of soil are saturated from precipitation; and
In a granular form when the local weather forecast for the application area contains greater than a fifty per cent chance of precipitation exceeding one inch in a twelve-hour period.
The same restrictions would apply for manure. If either manure or nutrients are “injected into the ground,” “incorporated within twenty-four hours of surface application,” or “applied to a growing crop,” however, the above restrictions would not apply.
The proposed changes would also alter and remove some language currently in the rule. The new rule would also remove the date restrictions on the surface application of manure that currently exist, as well as the requirement that the responsible party keep records of the local weather forecast. A document with the proposed amendments can be found here.
- OAC 901:13-19
Proposed changes to OAC 901:13-19 would require those who apply nutrients to more than fifty acres annually in a watershed in distress to “develop and operate in conformance with a nutrient management plan.” The original rule only applies to those applying manure. The new rule would also require “an attestation to the completion” of nutrient management plans to be “submitted” to the Director of ODA. The Director would also be given the power to “establish a deadline for all NMPs to be completed,” which would have to happen twelve to thirty-six months after the designation of a watershed in distress. The Director would also have the power to request NMPs from producers. The new rule would further require ODA to audit at least five percent of the attestations every year. Attestations would have to be completed each time an NMP is updated.
As for the content in the NMPs, the proposed rule would remove date prohibitions on manure application. The proposed rule also prescribes the form that NMP plans for nutrient application must take, as well as the information that must be included. The proposed rule would also change some language around so that parts that once only applied to manure would apply to nutrients, as well. The proposed changes to OAC 901:13-19 can be found here.
- OAC 901:13-1-99
OAC 901:13-1-99 contains the civil penalties for violating any of the rules in 901:13-1. The proposed changes to this section would reflect the changes to the other sections discussed above by including penalties for violating the new rule provisions.
More meetings will be held to determine which watersheds are “distressed”
In addition to the proposed rules for watersheds in distress, activity is also taking place on which particular watersheds within the Western Lake Erie Basin will actually be designated “distressed.” To this end, the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission has held several public meetings throughout the summer and fall to examine the question. Today, November 1, 2018, the Commission will hold yet another public meeting, where a vote on which watersheds are designated “distressed” may occur.
Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for updates on watershed in distress designations and the accompanying proposed rules!