Environmental

By: Ellen Essman, Monday, August 10th, 2020

Welcome to August! Despite the fact that most of us haven’t seen much besides the inside of our homes lately, the world still turns, which is also true for the gears in Washington D.C.  In this issue of the Ag Law Harvest, we will take a look at some recently introduced and passed federal legislation, as well as a proposed federal rule.

Great American Outdoors Act is a go.  The Great American Outdoors Act, one of the last pieces of legislation introduced by the late Representative John Lewis, was signed into law by the President on August 4.  The new law secures funding for deferred maintenance projects on federal lands.  The funding will come from 50% of the revenues from oil, gas, coal, or alternative energy development on federal lands.  The funding will be broken down between numerous agencies, with 70% to the National Park Service each year, 15% to the Forest Service, 5% to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5% to the Bureau of Land Management, and 5% to the Bureau of Indian Education.  You can read the law in its entirety here.

A meat processing slowdown for worker safety? In addition to the Great American Outdoors Act, numerous bills have been introduced to help farmers, ag-related businesses, and rural areas in the wake of COVID-19.  For instance, in early July, Ohio’s own Representative from the 11th District, Marcia Fudge, introduced H.R. 7521, which would suspend increases in line speeds at meat and poultry establishments during the pandemic.  Notably, if passed, the bill would “suspend implementation of, and conversion to the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System,” which has been planned since the USDA published the final rule in October of 2019. It would also make the USDA suspend any waivers for certain establishments related to increasing line speed.  The resolution was introduced to protect the safety of workers, animals, and food.  In theory, slower line speeds would make it easier for workers to social distance. This is especially important in the wake of outbreaks among workers at many processing plants.  On July 28, Senator Cory Booker introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Will livestock markets become more competitive?  On July 9, a group of Representatives from Iowa introduced H.R. 7501.  The bill would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 “to foster efficient markets and increase competition and transparency among packers that purchase livestock from producers.  To achieve this outcome, the bill would require packers to obtain at least 50% of their livestock through “spot market sales” every week.  This means that the packers would be required to buy from producers not affiliated with the packer. “Unaffiliated producers” would have less than a 1 percent equity interest in the packer (and vice versa), no directors, employees, etc. that are directors, employees, etc. of the packer, and no fiduciary responsibility to the packer.  Additionally, the packer would not have an equity interest in a nonaffiliated producer.  Basically, this bill would make it easier for independent producers to sell to packers. This bill is a companion to a Senate Bill 3693, which we discussed in a March edition of the Ag Law Harvest. According

New bill would make changes to FIFRA.  Just last week, a new bill was proposed in both the House and Senate that would alter the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.  The bill is called the “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020.” In a press release, the sponsoring Senator, Tom Udall, and Representative, Joe Neguse, explained that the proposed law would ban organophosphate insecticides, neonicotinoid insecticides, and the herbicide paraquat, which are linked to harmful effects in humans and the environment.  Furthermore, the law would allow individuals to petition the EPA to identify dangerous pesticides, close the loopholes allowing EPA to issue emergency exemptions and conditional registrations to use pesticides before they are fully vetted, allow communities to pass tougher laws on pesticides without state preemption, and press the pause button on pesticides found to be unsafe by the E.U. or Canada until they undergo EPA review.  Finally, the bill would make employers report pesticide-caused injuries, direct the EPA to work with pesticide manufacturers on labeling, and require manufacturers to include Spanish instructions on labels.  You can read the text of the bill here

USDA AMS publishes proposed Organic Rule.  Moving on to federal happenings outside Congress, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service published a proposed rule on August 5. The rule would amend current regulations for organic foods by strengthening “oversight of the production, handling certification, marketing, and sale of organic agricultural products.” The rule would make it easier to detect any fraud, trace organic products, and would make organic certification practices for producers more uniform.  Anyone interested in commenting on this proposed rule has until October 5, 2020 to do so.  You can find information on how to submit a comment on the website linked above. 

Welcome to August! Despite the fact that most of us haven’t seen much besides the inside of our homes lately, the world still turns, which is also true for the gears in Washington D.C.  In this issue of the Ag Law Harvest, we will take a look at some recently introduced and passed federal legislation, as well as a proposed federal rule.

Great American Outdoors Act is a go.  The Great American Outdoors Act, one of the last pieces of legislation introduced by the late Representative John Lewis, was signed into law by the President on August 4.  The new law secures funding for deferred maintenance projects on federal lands.  The funding will come from 50% of the revenues from oil, gas, coal, or alternative energy development on federal lands.  The funding will be broken down between numerous agencies, with 70% to the National Park Service each year, 15% to the Forest Service, 5% to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5% to the Bureau of Land Management, and 5% to the Bureau of Indian Education.  You can read the law in its entirety here.

A meat processing slowdown for worker safety? In addition to the Great American Outdoors Act, numerous bills have been introduced to help farmers, ag-related businesses, and rural areas in the wake of COVID-19.  For instance, in early July, Ohio’s own Representative from the 11th District, Marcia Fudge, introduced H.R. 7521, which would suspend increases in line speeds at meat and poultry establishments during the pandemic.  Notably, if passed, the bill would “suspend implementation of, and conversion to the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System,” which has been planned since the USDA published the final rule in October of 2019. It would also make the USDA suspend any waivers for certain establishments related to increasing line speed.  The resolution was introduced to protect the safety of workers, animals, and food.  In theory, slower line speeds would make it easier for workers to social distance. This is especially important in the wake of outbreaks among workers at many processing plants.  On July 28, Senator Cory Booker introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Will livestock markets become more competitive?  On July 9, a group of Representatives from Iowa introduced H.R. 7501.  The bill would amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 “to foster efficient markets and increase competition and transparency among packers that purchase livestock from producers.  To achieve this outcome, the bill would require packers to obtain at least 50% of their livestock through “spot market sales” every week.  This means that the packers would be required to buy from producers not affiliated with the packer. “Unaffiliated producers” would have less than a 1 percent equity interest in the packer (and vice versa), no directors, employees, etc. that are directors, employees, etc. of the packer, and no fiduciary responsibility to the packer.  Additionally, the packer would not have an equity interest in a nonaffiliated producer.  Basically, this bill would make it easier for independent producers to sell to packers. This bill is a companion to a Senate Bill 3693, which we discussed in a March edition of the Ag Law Harvest. According

New bill would make changes to FIFRA.  Just last week, a new bill was proposed in both the House and Senate that would alter the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.  The bill is called the “Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2020.” In a press release, the sponsoring Senator, Tom Udall, and Representative, Joe Neguse, explained that the proposed law would ban organophosphate insecticides, neonicotinoid insecticides, and the herbicide paraquat, which are linked to harmful effects in humans and the environment.  Furthermore, the law would allow individuals to petition the EPA to identify dangerous pesticides, close the loopholes allowing EPA to issue emergency exemptions and conditional registrations to use pesticides before they are fully vetted, allow communities to pass tougher laws on pesticides without state preemption, and press the pause button on pesticides found to be unsafe by the E.U. or Canada until they undergo EPA review.  Finally, the bill would make employers report pesticide-caused injuries, direct the EPA to work with pesticide manufacturers on labeling, and require manufacturers to include Spanish instructions on labels.  You can read the text of the bill here

USDA AMS publishes proposed Organic Rule.  Moving on to federal happenings outside Congress, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service published a proposed rule on August 5. The rule would amend current regulations for organic foods by strengthening “oversight of the production, handling certification, marketing, and sale of organic agricultural products.” The rule would make it easier to detect any fraud, trace organic products, and would make organic certification practices for producers more uniform.  Anyone interested in commenting on this proposed rule has until October 5, 2020 to do so.  You can find information on how to submit a comment on the website linked above. 

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

In a decision that turns largely on scientific methodology and reliable data, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday allowed continued registration of the Enlist Duo herbicide developed by Dow AgroScience (Corteva).  Unlike last month’s decision that vacated registrations of three dicamba herbicides, the two-judge majority on the court held that substantial evidence supported the EPA’s decision to register the herbicide.  Even so, the court sent one petition back to the EPA to further consider the impact of Enlist Duo on monarch butterflies in application areas. One dissenting judge would have held that the science used to support the Enlist Duo registration violates the Endangered Species Act.

The case began in 2014, when the same organizations that challenged the dicamba registrations (National Family Farm Coalition, Family Farm Defenders, Beyond Pesticides, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network North America) and the Natural Resources Defense Council each filed petitions challenging the EPA’s registration of Enlist Duo.  The EPA later amended the registration in 2015 and 2017, eventually allowing use of the herbicide on corn, soybeans and cotton in 34 states.  The petitioners challenged the 2015 and 2017 registrations as well, and the Ninth Circuit consolidated the challenges into the case at hand.

The court’s opinion begins with an explanation of why it agreed with the parties who brought the challenges that they had the legal right to do so, or had “associational standing.”   Likely of higher interest to our readers is how the court answered the questions of whether the EPA adequately examined the potential impacts of Enlist Duo under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Here’s what the court had to say about the petitioners’ claims under each law:

The FIFRA claims.  The monarch butterfly issue was the only successful FIFRA claim advanced by the petitioners.  The court agreed that the EPA didn’t properly assess adverse harm to monarch butterflies that would result from increased 2,4-D use on milkweed in application fields, despite evidence suggesting that the butterflies might be adversely affected.  The EPA stated that it didn’t do so because the approval of Enlist Duo would not change the amount of milkweed being controlled by herbicides—those milkweeds would still be controlled with or without Enlist Duo.  The court disagreed, stating that FIFRA required the agency to determine whether any effect was “adverse” before then determining whether the effect on the environment was unreasonable, which EPA didn’t do in regard to the monarch butterfly.

The court rejected all of the petitioners’ other arguments under FIFRA:

Applicable standards.  Several claims that the EPA applied the wrong FIFRA registration standards failed.  The agency correctly used the broader and more stringent standard, which was to determine whether the registration would cause any unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.   

Increased glyphosate use.  Petitioners also argued that the EPA erred in determining that approval of Enlist Duo would not cause unreasonable adverse effects on environment because glyphosate was already being used.  The registration would only impact which glyphosate was being used but not how much glyphosate was in use.  The court agreed with EPA’s assertion that due to the “nearly ubiquitous use” of glyphosate across the country before the approval of Enlist Duo registration, there would not be an increase in overall glyphosate use and no increased risks.   Interestingly, the court distinguished increased use from new data about glyphosate use, stating that “this does not mean, of course, that new data about glyphosate will go unconsidered….”

Volatility risk.  The court also rejected volatility risk arguments, one of the science-heavy parts of the opinion (begin at page 37 for a good read).  The EPA had concluded the type of 2,4-D in Enlist Duo exhibits lower volatility and off-site vapor drift than other forms of 2,4-D.  EPA reached this conclusion based several studies and data points:  a laboratory study that examined degree of visual damage, six publicly available studies assessing plant growth and survival damage, data from a vapor flux study used to perform computer modeling to determine dose level and air concentration in order to predict adverse damages to plants off-field, a second type of modeling that assesses drift of wet and dry depositions, and atmospheric monitoring data.  Petitioners claimed limitations to the studies and methodology used, contradictions between EPA scientists, failure to follow regulatory guidelines and to consider large enough field sizes in its modeling.  The court commented that the evaluation of volatility “probably could have been better,” but found no evidence showing that EPA’s conclusion was wrong or that volatility fears had materialized since approval of the herbicide.  The court explained that the agency may apply its expertise to draw conclusions from probative preliminary data and “it is not our role to second-guess EPA’s conclusion.” 

Mixing risks.  Petitioners also argued that Dow intended to mix Enlist Duo with glufosinate and EPA failed to account for the synergistic effect of such mixing.  With no evidence other than an abandoned patent application for a mixed product by Dow, the court held that FIFRA doesn’t require an analysis of theoretical tank mixing but only that which is contemplated on the label. 

Nearly all of the EPA’s FIFRA decisions were supported by substantial evidence, the court concluded, with the exception of the monarch butterfly analysis. 

The ESA claims.   Science is a recurring theme in the court’s analysis of the petitioners’ ESA arguments, and also the source of sharp disagreement on the court.  ESA’s section 7 requires a determination of the biological impacts of a proposed action.  ESA consultation among the agencies is required if determined that an agency’s action “may affect” a listed species or critical habitat in an “action area.”   The petitioners claimed that EPA failed in its determination on several grounds, requiring the court to review whether the EPA’s determination was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law.  Here are the arguments, and the court’s responses:

“No effect” finding.  The petitioners argued that the EPA erred in determining that Enlist Duo approval would have “no effect” on plant and animal species and the court responded with another lengthy science-heavy discussion of “risk quotient” methodology and legal requirements  to use the “best scientific and commercial data available.”  The EPA employed a risk quotient methodology to conclude that there would be exposure to the herbicide but that such exposure would not lead to an effect on plants and animals.  The two judges in the majority were willing to defer to the agency on this conclusion and its dependence on the risk quotient methodology, but Judge Watford strongly disagreed.  Pointing out that the National Academy of Sciences had advised the EPA that the risk quotient method was “scientifically unsound,” the dissent concluded that the data derived from the methodology did not qualify as “scientific data” and therefore violated the ESA.   The majority stated that the risk quotient methodology doesn’t violate the duty to use the best scientific and commercial data available, which means that the EPA must not disregard available scientific evidence that is better and does not require the agency to conduct new tests or make decisions on data that doesn’t exist.   Deference to the agency was warranted, said the majority, and restraint against second guessing or using the court’s judgment.

Action area.   For its ESA determination, the EPA limited the “action area” to treated fields, while petitioners argued that the herbicide would drift beyond treated fields.  Again turning to the EPA’s science, the court held that the agency had science-based reasons for limiting the target area.  The EPA had appropriately accounted for drift through empirical data, mitigation measures, and label restrictions and no evidence in the record supported that the agency had made an error.

Critical habitat.  The final argument advanced by petitioners was that EPA did not meet its duty to insure that there would be no “adverse modification” of critical habitat from the registration.  Although there were 154 species with critical habitats in the states where Enlist Duo would be approved, EPA concluded that 176 of the species would not be in corn, cotton or soybean fields.  Of the eight species remaining, the agency determined that there would be no modification to their critical habitats as a result of Enlist Duo registration because none of the species’ essential features or “primary constituent elements” were related to agriculture.  Petitioners challenged the methodology EPA employed to reach this conclusion, but the court once again disagreed and deferred to the agency.

What remedy?

With only the monarch butterfly impact analysis in need of further study, the Ninth Circuit declined the petitioners’ request to vacate the Enlist Duo registration.   The court chose instead to remand the petition without vacating the registration, stating that the EPA’s failure to consider harm to monarch butterflies was technical and not a “serious” error.  Pointing also to the “disruptive” consequences of removing a pesticide that has been in use for over five years, the court stated that vacatur was not warranted when the EPA had substantially complied with FIFRA and fully complied with the ESA.

What’s next?

Enlist Duo registration will continue.  The EPA must address evidence that its destruction of milkweed in fields harms monarch butterflies, however.  The court advised the agency to “move promptly” in doing so.

Further action by the petitioners is likely.  According to correspondence with DTN, the petitioners are disappointed and will fight the decision.  They will likely also follow the EPA’s science quite closely as it reexamines the monarch butterfly issue.

Read the Ninth Circuit's decision National Family Farm Coalition et al v. U.S. EPA and Natural Resources Defense Council v. Wheeler, here.

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

Since the advent of the Clean Water Act (CWA), states have attempted to address agricultural nutrient pollution through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) system. But legal challenges have plagued state NPDES permit programs from their beginnings, and litigation has become a common tool for reducing water quality impacts from manure and other agricultural nutrients. States have developed their own water quality laws and policies, and there have been legal challenges to those as well. These legal challenges arise from environmental interests and impacted neighbors and communities and can be pre-emptive or reactionary. Our newest report for the National Agricultural Law Center examines litigation involving agricultural nutrients from 2018 through 2020. 

In the report, the cases are broken down into several categories. We examine what the courts have to say when it comes to NPDES permits for individual farms and whether they are properly issued by states, whether or not the government (state and federal) is following its own laws and regulations when carrying out water pollution policies, the validity of state CAFO General Discharge permits, and whether or not neighboring landowners have redress for potential agricultural runoff. Some of the cases are challenges to state water quality laws, or the issuance of an NPDES permit.  A few other cases directly target agricultural producers.  The report is entitled Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality: Recent Litigation in the United States, and can be found here

In addition to the paper, we also recently updated part of our nutrient management project on the National Agricultural Law Center’s website.  The project was first published last year, and includes a report and a state chart. The chart tracks which states require nutrient management plans, nutrient application restrictions, and certification and education for nutrient applicators, and can be found here. The chart also provides links to states’ nutrient management laws and regulations.  A few changes and additions have been made to state laws and regulations within the chart.

The USDA’s National Agriculture Library funded our research on these related projects, which we conducted in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center. 

By: Ellen Essman, Friday, June 26th, 2020

Dicamba, Roundup, WOTUS, and ag-gag: although there are important updates, this week’s Harvest topics could be considered some of the Ag Law Blog’s “greatest hits.”   In addition to these ongoing issues, a bill that is meant to encourage farmers to participate in carbon markets was recently introduced in the Senate. June has certainly been a busy month. 

Decisions on dicamba. If you’ve been following along with our blog posts over the past few weeks, you know that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the registration of several over-the-top dicamba products, and in response, the EPA announced that all such products in farmers’ possession must be used before July 31, 2020 (our last post on the topic is available here).  The Ohio Department of Agriculture went a step further, making the final date for dicamba use in the state June 30, 2020, due to the state registrations expiring on that day.  Since the Ninth Circuit decision, the companies that produce dicamba products such as Engenia and, FXapan, and XtendiMax have filed numerous motions with the Ninth Circuit.  On June 25, the court declined a motion from the BASF Corporation, which makes Engenia, asking the court to pause and withdraw their decision from the beginning of the month.  What does this mean?  Basically, at this moment, the court’s ruling still stands, and use of certain over-the-top products will have to cease on the dates mentioned above.  That’s the latest on this “volatile” issue. 

Bayer settles Roundup lawsuits, but this probably isn’t the end. Bayer, the German company that purchased Monsanto and now owns rights to many of the former company’s famous products, has been fighting lawsuits on multiple fronts.  Not only is the company involved in the dicamba battle mentioned above, but over the past few years it has had a slew of lawsuits concerning Roundup. On June 24, Bayer, the German company that now owns the rights to Roundup, announced that it would settle around 9,500 lawsuits.  The lawsuits were from people who claimed that Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, had caused health problems including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  The amount of the settlement will be between 8.8 and 9.6 billion dollars.  Some of that money will be saved for future Roundup claims.  Although many are involved in this settlement, there are still thousands of claims against Bayer for litigants who did not want to join the settlement. 

Updated WOTUS still not perfect. As always, there is an update on the continuing saga of the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  If you recall, back in April, the Trump administration’s “final” WOTUS rule was published.  Next, of course, came challenges of the rule from both sides, as we discussed in a previous Harvest post.  Well, the rule officially took effect (in most places, we’ll get to that) June 22, despite the efforts of a group of attorneys general from Democratically-controlled states attempting to halt the implementation of the rule.  The attorneys general asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California a nationwide preliminary injunction, or pause on implementation of the rule until it could be sorted out in the courts.  The district court judge denied that injunction on June 19. On the very same day, a federal judge in Colorado granted the state’s request to pause the implementation of the rule within the state’s territory.  Remember that the 2015 rule was implemented in some states and not others for similar reasons.  The same trend seemingly continues with Trump’s replacement rule.  In fact, numerous lawsuits challenging the rule are ongoing across the country.  A number of the suits argue that rule does not go far enough to protect waters.  For instance, just this week environmental groups asked for an injunction against the rule in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  Environmental organizations have also challenged the rule in Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Carolina district courts.  On the other hand, agricultural groups like the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association have filed lawsuits arguing that the rule is too strict.

  No more ag-gag in NC?  We have mentioned a few times before on the blog that North Carolina’s ag-gag law has been embroiled in a lawsuit for several years (posts are available here).  North Carolina’s version of “ag-gag” was somewhat different from other states, because the statute applied to other property owners, not just those involved in agriculture. The basic gist of the law was that an unauthorized person entering into the nonpublic area of a business was liable to the owner or operator if any damages occurred.  This included entering recording or surveilling conditions in the nonpublic area, which is a tool the plaintiffs use to further their cause. In a ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina was decided largely in the plaintiffs’ (PETA, Animal Legal Defense Fund, etc.) favor. In order to not get into the nitty gritty details of the 73-page ruling, suffice it to say that the judge found that that law did violate the plaintiffs’ freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Another ag-gag law bites the dust. 

Carbon markets for farmers?  And, now for something completely different. In the beginning of June, a bipartisan group of four U.S. senators introduced the “Growing Climate Solutions Act.”  On June 24, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held its first hearing on the new bill, numbered 3894.  The text of SB 3894 is not currently available online, but it would create “a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers that prevent farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets.”  The barriers “include[] access to reliable information about markets and access to qualified technical assistance providers and credit protocol verifiers” and “have limited both landowner participation and the adoption of practices that help reduce the costs of developing carbon credits.” You can read the Committee’s full press release about the bill here. It is backed by several notable businesses and groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, and McDonalds and Microsoft. 

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, June 11th, 2020

The dicamba roller coaster ride continues today, with a statement issued by the Ohio Department of Agriculture clarifying that the use of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan dicamba-based products in Ohio will end as of June 30, 2020.  Even though the US EPA has issued an order allowing continued use of the products until July 31, 2020, use in Ohio must end on June 30 because the Ohio registrations for the three dicamba-based products expire on that day.

As we’ve explained in our previous blog posts here and here, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the registration of the dicamba products on June 3, 2020.  In doing so, the court stated that the EPA had failed to perform a proper analysis of the risks and resulting costs of the products.  According to the court, EPA had substantially understated the amount of acreage damaged by dicamba and the extent of such damage, as well as complaints made to state agriculture departments.  The court determined that EPA had also entirely failed to acknowledge other risks, such as the risk of noncompliance with complex label restrictions, economic risks from anti-competition impacts created by the products, and the social costs to farm communities caused by dicamba versus non-dicamba users.  Rather than allowing the EPA to reconsider the registrations, the court vacated the product registrations altogether.

The EPA issued a Cancellation Order for the three products on June 8, stating that distribution or sale by the registrants is prohibited as of June 3, 2020.  But the agency also decided to examine the issue on the minds of many farmers:  what to do with the products.  Applying its “existing stocks” policy, the EPA examined six factors to help it determine how to deal with stocks of the product that are in the hands of dealers, commercial applicators, and farmers.  The EPA concluded that those factors weighed heavily in favor of allowing the end users to use the products in their possession, but that use must occur no later than July 31, 2020 and that any use inconsistent with the previous label restrictions is prohibited.

Despite the EPA’s Cancellation Order, however, the Ohio Department of Agriculture is the final arbiter of the registration and use of pesticides and herbicides within Ohio.  ODA patiently waited for the EPA to act on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling before issuing its guidance for Ohio users of the dicamba products.  In its guidance released today, ODA stated that:

  • After careful evaluation of the court’s ruling, US EPA’s Final Cancellation Order, and the Ohio Revised Code and Administrative Code, as of July 1, 2020, these products will no longer be registered or available for use in Ohio unless otherwise ordered by the courts.
  • While use of already purchased product is permitted in Ohio until June 30, further distribution or sale of the products is illegal, except for ensuring proper disposal or return to the registrant.
  • Application of existing stocks inconsistent with the previously approved labeling accompanying the product is prohibited.

But the roller coaster ride doesn’t necessarily end there.  Several dangling issues for dicamba-based product use remain:

  • We’re still waiting to see whether the plaintiffs who challenged the registrations (the National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Pesticide Action Network North America) will also challenge the EPA’s Cancellation Order and its decision to allow continued use of the products, and will request immediate discontinuance of such uses. 
  • Bayer Crop Science, as an intervenor in the Ninth Circuit case, could still appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision, as could the EPA. 
  • All of these orders add complexity to the issue of liability for dicamba damage.  That issue has already become quite controversial, often pitting farmer against farmer and requiring the applicator or damaged party to prove adherence to or violation of the complicated label restrictions.  But the Ninth Circuit’s attention to the risks of adverse impacts from the products raises additional questions about whether an applicator who chooses to use the products is knowingly assuming a higher risk, and whether a liability insurance provider will cover that risk.  For this reason, growers may want to have a frank discussion with their liability insurance providers about coverage for dicamba drift.

The dicamba roller coaster ride will surely continue, and we’ll keep you updated on the next development. 

Read the ODA’s Official Statement Regarding the Use of Over-the-Top Dicamba Products here.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, June 09th, 2020

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

Authority to issue the cancellation order

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

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

Existing Stocks Determination

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

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

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

  1.  Risks resulting from the use of the existing stocks

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

  1. The benefits resulting from the use of existing stocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Order

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

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

Now what? 

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

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

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

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

Posted In: Biotechnology, Crop Issues, Environmental
Tags: dicamba, FIFRA, EPA
Comments: 0
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, June 04th, 2020

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

The challenge:  EPA’s approval of three dicamba products

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

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

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

The Ninth Circuit’s review

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

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

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

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

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

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

What remedy?

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

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

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

What now?

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

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

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

 

 

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Kirk Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

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

Trump’s new WOTUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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