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By: Ellen Essman, Thursday, March 12th, 2020

The Center for Food Safety (CFC), along with other groups and a number of organic farms, filed a lawsuit early this month claiming that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) when it allowed hydroponically-grown crops to bear the “Certified Organic” label.  In January 2019, CFC filed a legal petition asking USDA to create regulations which would ban hydroponic operations from using the organic label.  USDA denied the petition, and CFC’s current lawsuit also alleges that USDA’s denial violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  CFC asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to vacate USDA’s denial of their petition and to bar the agency from certifying any hydroponic operations as organic.  The complaint can be found here

What do “hydroponic” and “organic” mean anyway?

Many of you are probably familiar with hydroponic and organic growing, but since the terms are very important in this lawsuit, it’s worth reviewing them before we continue. 

The USDA, on its National Agricultural Library website, defines “hydroponics” as “growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium.” In other words, hydroponic plants can be grown in mediums such as sand, gravel, and water with additional nutrients.  Simply put, hydroponic plants are not grown in the soil. 

OFPA (available here) says in order to sell or label an agricultural product as “organically produced,” the product must:  1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided; (2) except as otherwise provided in this chapter and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.  Thus, for a plant to be “organic,” it must meet these criteria. 

CFC’s argument under OFPA

In their lawsuit, CFC is principally concerned with the third part of the organic requirements listed above—that in order to be labeled as organic, an agricultural product must be “produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan.” Organic plans, in turn, must also meet a number of requirements.  One of those requirements is that the “organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” At its most basic, CFC’s argument is that fostering soil fertility is an integral and required part of the OFPA, and therefore, plants not grown in actual soil cannot meet all the requirements necessary for organic certification.  In other words, since hydroponics by definition are not grown in soil, hydroponic farmers can’t foster soil fertility.  As a result, CFC maintains that since fostering soil fertility is required in order for plants to be labeled “organic,” hydroponically-grown plants can’t be organic.  By allowing hydroponics to be labeled organic, CFC asserts that USDA is in violation of the OFPA. 

CFC’s argument under the APA

The plaintiffs also contend that USDA’s denial of their 2019 petition violated the APA. The APA (you can find the relevant chapter here) is the law that federal agencies must follow when writing and adopting regulations.  Under the APA, courts have the power to overturn agency actions if they are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or are otherwise unlawful.  Additionally, courts can overturn agency actions when they go beyond the authority given to the agency by Congress.  Here, CFC argues that USDA’s denial of their petition was arbitrary and capricious and not in accordance with the law.  Basically, they are arguing that USDA violated the APA by ignoring the soil fertility language that Congress included in OFPA. 

What’s USDA’s take?

USDA’s denial of CFC’s petition gives us a little insight into what the agency’s response to the lawsuit might include.  The agency claims that the National Organic Program (NOP) has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic in the past.  Furthermore, USDA counters that the statutory and regulatory provisions that refer to “soil” do not require every organic plant to be grown in soil.  Instead, they say the provisions are simply “applicable to production systems that do use soil.”

The court will certainly have a lot to sift through in this lawsuit.  USDA still has to respond to the complaint, and hydroponic operations might throw their support behind the agency’s cause.  We’ll be keeping an eye on what happens and will make sure to keep you updated!

By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

In Ohio and around the country, farmers are gearing up for a new planting season.  Spring is (almost) here! Before we leave winter totally behind, we wanted to keep you up to date on some notable ag law news from the past few months.

Here’s a look at what’s going on in ag law across the country…

New law signed to ramp up ag protections at U.S. ports of entry. Last summer, a bill was introduced in the United States Senate by a bipartisan group of senators.  The purpose of the bill was to give more resources to Customs and Border Control (CBP) to inspect food and other agricultural goods coming across the U.S. border.  On March 3, 2020, the President signed the bill into law.  The new law authorizes CBP to hire and train more agricultural specialists, technicians, and canine teams for inspections at ports of entry.  The additional hires are meant to help efforts to prevent foreign animal diseases like African swine fever from entering the United States.  You can read the law here.

The Renewable Fuel Standard gets a win.  We reported on Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) issues last fall, and it seems as though the battles between biofuel producers and oil refineries have spilled over into 2020.  For a refresher, the RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels.  Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane.  In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners.  As a result, biofuels groups filed a lawsuit, asserting that EPA did not have the power to grant some of the waivers it gave to small oil refiners.  On January 24, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed with the biofuels groups.  You can find the 99-page opinion here. If you’re not up for that bit of light reading, here’s the SparkNotes version: the court determined that EPA did not have the authority to grant three waivers to two small refineries in 2017.  The court found that EPA “exceeded its statutory authority” because it extended exemptions that had never been given in the first place. To put it another way, the court asked how EPA could “extend” a waiver when the waiver had not been given in previous years. The Trump Administration is currently contemplating whether or not to appeal the decision. 

Virginia General Assembly defines “milk.” To paraphrase Shakespeare, does “milk by another name taste as sweet?” Joining the company of a number of other states that have defined “milk” and “meat,” the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill on March 4, 2020 that defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved mammal.” The bill would make it illegal to label products as “milk” in Virginia unless they met the definition above.  Essentially, products like almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, coconut milk, etc. would be misbranded if the labels represent the products as milk.  Governor Ralph Northam has not yet signed or vetoed the bill. If he signs the bill, it would not become effective until six months after 11 of 14 southern states enact similar laws. The 11 states would also have to enact their laws before or on October 1, 2029 for Virginia’s law to take effect.  The states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.  North Carolina has already passed a similar law. 

And now, for ag law in our neck of the woods.

Purple paint bill reintroduced in Ohio.  You may recall that the Ohio General Assembly has been toying with the idea of a purple paint law for the past several years.  On March 4, 2020, Senator Bill Coley (R-Liberty Township) once again introduced a purple paint bill.  What exactly does “purple paint” mean? If passed, the bill would allow landowners to put purple paint on trees and/or fence posts. The marks would have to be vertical lines at least eight inches long, between three and five feet from the base of the tree or post, readily visible, and placed at intervals of at most 25 yards. If the bill passed, such marks would be sufficient to inform those recklessly trespassing on private property that they are not authorized to be there.  People who recklessly trespass on land with purple paint marks would be guilty of a fourth degree criminal misdemeanor.  You can read the bill here.

Bill giving tax credits to beginning farmers considered. Senate Bill 159, titled “Grant tax credits to assist beginning farmers” had a hearing in the Senate Ways & Means Committee on March 3, 2020.  The bill, introduced last year, seeks to provide tax incentives to beginning farmers who participate in an approved financial management program, as well as to businesses that sell or rent agricultural land, livestock, facilities, or equipment to beginning farmers. A nearly identical bill is being considered in the House, HB 183. Back in February, Governor Mike DeWine indicated he would sign such a bill if it passed the General Assembly.  SB 159 is available here, and HB 183 is available here.

By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, March 03rd, 2020

For months, would-be hemp cultivators and processors in Ohio have been waiting for the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) to announce when applications for licenses would be released.  Well, the wait is over—hemp applications became available online at 12:00 p.m. on March 3, 2020.  Normally, the application window for hemp cultivation would run from November 1-March 31.  Since the program is just getting off the ground this year, the cultivation application window has been extended to May 1, 2020.  Hemp processing applications are accepted at any time. 

As was discussed above, there are separate licenses for cultivating, or growing hemp, and for processing harvested hemp.  In other words, being licensed to cultivate hemp would not allow you to process hemp, and vice versa.  In order to apply for either one of the licenses, go to ODA’s hemp program page, available here. Once on that page, go to the “How to Apply for a License” drop-down.  There, ODA walks you through the steps you must follow in order to apply for a license.  First, you must create an OH|ID account.  This account must be in the name of the individual applicant, principal researcher and/or the individual who is authorized to sign on behalf of the business—be that the farm or a processing facility.  An email address and phone number for that person must also be included.  After creating your OH|ID account, sign into it.  After signing in, you can return to ODA’s hemp program page and go back to the “How to Apply for a License” drop-down and click on the link provided that reads “Then click here to apply.”

Keep in mind that if you wish to grow or process hemp, there are detailed rules you must follow, such as getting your sites approved, setback requirements, land use restrictions, and providing ODA with information like GPS coordinates of the land and the number of acres and plants you cultivate, just to name a few. To become licensed, you must also submit to a background check. A fee is required when you apply for a cultivation or processing license, and also annually when you renew your license.  Fees are also required for each type of processing you plan to do and each growing location. After you become licensed, you must allow ODA to inspect your farm or facility and take samples.  You must submit to testing to determine that your hemp or hemp products are at or below 0.3% THC.  Licensed cultivators must also pay fees for sampling and if any THC re-testing is requested.

ODA’s hemp program page also includes a helpful frequently asked questions (FAQs) tab that answers everything from the difference between hemp and marijuana, to how to complete your background check, to how to plant and harvest hemp. If you are interested in growing or processing hemp, you really should read ODA’s hemp page carefully, as there is a lot useful information available there.  For further information, Ohio’s hemp rules are available here. In addition, questions can be addressed by ODA by calling 614-728-2101​, or by emailing hemp@agri.ohio.gov

By: Ellen Essman, Friday, February 21st, 2020

The year is still fairly new, and 2020 has brought with it some newly-introduced legislation in the Ohio General Assembly.  That being said, in 2020 the General Assembly also continues to consider legislation first introduced in 2019.  From tax exemptions to CAUV changes, to watershed programs and local referendums on wind turbines, here is some notable ag-related legislation making its way through the state house. 

New legislation

  • House Bill 400 “To authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for the retail sale of high-ethanol blend motor fuel”

HB 400 was introduced after our last legislative update in November, so while it was first introduced in 2019, it still technically qualifies as “new” to us.  Since its introduction, the bill has been discussed in two hearings in the House Ways & Means Committee.  The bill would give owners and operators of gas stations a tax rebate of five cents per gallon for sales of ethanol.  To apply, the fuel would have to be between 15% and 85% ethanol (E15).  If passed, the tax credit would be available for four years.  The bill is meant to encourage gas station owners in Ohio to sell E15, which is much more readily available in other states.  The bill is available here.

  • House Bill 485 “To remove a requirement that owners of farmland enrolled in the CAUV program must file a renewal application each year in order to remain in the program”

Introduced on January 29, 2020, HB 485 would make it easier for farmers to stay enrolled in the Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program.  CAUV allows agricultural land to be taxed at a much lower rate than other types of land.  If HB 485 were to pass, the initial application for CAUV on land more than 10 acres would automatically renew each year but the landowner must notify the auditor if the land ceases to be devoted exclusively for agricultural use. Owners of agricultural land less than 10 acres in size, who can qualify for CAUV if gross income from the land exceeds $2,500, would have to submit documentation on the annual gross income of the land to the county auditor each year rather than filing the renewal application. The CAUV bill can be found here.

Legislation from 2019 still being considered

  • House Bill 24 “Revise Humane Society law”

In November, we reported that HB 24 passed the House unanimously and was subsequently referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.  Since that time, the committee has held two hearings on the bill. The hearings included testimony from the bill’s House sponsors, who touted how the bill would improve humane societies’ public accountability. The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations, require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve, and would establish procedures for seizing and impounding animals. It would also remove humane societies’ current jurisdiction over child abuse cases and make agents subject to bribery laws. Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense.  Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats.  You can read HB 24 here

  • House Bill 109 “To authorize a property tax exemption for land used for commercial maple sap extraction”

HB 109 was first introduced in February of 2019, but has recently seen some action in the House Ways & Means Committee, where it was discussed in a hearing on January 28, 2020.  The bill would give owners of “maple forest land” a property tax exemption if they: (1) Drill an average of 30 taps during the tax year into at least 15 maple trees per acre; (2) use sap in commercially sold maple products; and (3) manage the land under a plan that complies with the standards of reasonable care in the protection and maintenance of forest land.  In addition, the land must be 10 contiguous acres. Maple forest land that does not meet that acreage threshold can still receive a tax exemption if the sap produces an average yearly gross income of $2,500 or more in the three preceding years, or if evidence shows that the gross income during the current tax year will be at least $2,500.  You can find the text of the proposed bill here.

  • House Bill 160 “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”

Have you ever thought, “Gee, this ice cream is great, but what could make it even better?” Well this is the bill for you! At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol in Ohio must obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol.  This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. HB 160 passed the House last year and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.  Since our last legislative update, the committee has had three hearings on the bill. In the hearings, proponents testified in support of the bill, arguing that it would allow their businesses to grow and compete with out of state businesses. Senators asked questions about how the ice cream would be kept away from children, how the bill would help business, and about other states with similar laws. To read the bill, click here.

  • Senate Bill 2 “Create watershed planning structure”

In 2019, SB 2 passed the Senate and moved on to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director.  Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region.  The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices.  Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus.  Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption.

Since SB 2 moved on to the lower chamber, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held multiple hearings on the bill, and has consented to two amendments.  The first amendment would keep information about individual nutrient management plans out of the public record. Similarly, the second amendment would keep information about farmers’ agricultural operations and conservation practices out of the public record. The text of SB 2 is available here.

  • Senate Bill 234 “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”

SB 234 was introduced on November 6, 2019.  Since that time, the bill was assigned to the Senate Energy & Public Utilities Committee, and three hearings have been held. The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote.  The bill would also change how minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured.  The committee hearings have included testimony from numerous proponents of the bill. SB 234 is available here.  A companion bill was also introduced in the House.  HB 401 can be found here

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

For the last several years, the state of Ohio and the U.S. EPA have been plagued with objections and lawsuits—from states, local governments, and environmental groups—concerning Ohio’s list of impaired waters and development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Some of our past blog posts on the subject are available here, here, and here.) Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states are required to submit a list of impaired, or polluted, waters every two years.  Typically, designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of TMDLs for different pollutants, and an action plan for meeting those TMDLs.  Ohio repeatedly failed to include the Western Basin in its list of impaired waters, even though the area has been subject to pollution-caused algal blooms in recent years.  When the state finally listed the Western Basin waters as impaired in 2018, it still did not develop the accompanying TMDL for the area.  However, Ohio’s TMDL drought ended last week. 

Ohio EPA announced on February 13, 2020, that it would develop TMDLs for the Western Basin “over the next two to three years.” This decision will ultimately affect farmers in the watershed, as it is likely that the Ohio EPA would create TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers in the Western Basin. Consequently, farmers may have to reduce the amounts they put on their fields, and/or implement additional measures to keep such inputs from running off into the water.

So, Ohio listed the Western Basin as impaired and is working on TMDLs for the area—the controversy is over, right?  Not so fast.  Lucas County, Ohio and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA that is still ongoing.  (We last discussed this lawsuit here.) Basically, the plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the U.S. EPA violated the CWA when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate the Western Basin as impaired in 2018, but did not make the state develop TMDLs.  Even though Ohio has since promised to implement TMDLs for the area, the outcome of the case will still weigh in on the crucial question of whether the U.S. EPA can make states create TMDLs for impaired waters under the CWA.  In addition, the U.S. District Court case applies to Ohio’s 2018 impaired waters list, whereas Ohio EPA’s recent announcement concerns the 2020 list.  Finally, it’s doubtful that environmental groups and others will stop their efforts just because Ohio has now promised to create TMDLs—it’s almost a certainty that the debate over pollution in the Western Basin and the best ways to remedy the problem will persist. 

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, February 05th, 2020

Last year, we wrote a post on recent developments in ag-gag litigation.  In that post, we discussed a few ag-gag laws that had been struck down on First Amendment grounds.  Court actions and decisions in recent months show that this trend is continuing.  Namely, decisions in Iowa and Kansas have not been favorable to ag-gag laws. 

What is an ag-gag law?

“Ag-gag” is the term for state laws that prevent undercover journalists, investigators, animal rights advocates, and other whistleblowers from secretly filming or recording at livestock facilities.  “Ag-gag” also describes laws which make it illegal for undercover persons to use deception to obtain employment at livestock facilities.  Many times, the laws were actually passed in response to undercover investigations which illuminated conditions for animals raised at large industrial farms. Some of the videos and reports produced were questionable in nature—they either set-up the employees and the farms, or they were released without a broader context of farm operations. The laws were meant to protect the livestock industry from reporting that might be critical of their operations—obtained through deception and without context, or otherwise. The state of Ohio does not have an ag-gag law, but a number of other states have passed such legislation. 

Injunction in Iowa lawsuit

You may recall that Iowa’s ag-gag law was overturned in January of last year.  The judge found that the speech being implicated by the law, “false statements and misrepresentations,” was protected speech under the First Amendment.  The state wasted little time in passing a new ag-gag law that contained slightly different language. (We wrote about the differences between Iowa’s old and new versions of the law here.) After passage of the new law, animal rights and food safety groups quickly filed a new lawsuit against the state, claiming that like the previous law, the new law prohibited their speech based on content and viewpoint.  In other words, they argued that the new Iowa law was still discriminatory towards their negative speech about the agricultural industry, while favoring speech depicting the industry in a positive light. 

While the new challenge of Iowa’s law has not yet been decided by U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the court did grant a preliminary injunction against the law late last year.  This means the law cannot be enforced while the case is ongoing, which is certainly a strike against the state.  We’ll have to wait and see if the court is persuaded that the new language of the law violates the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, but for the time being, there is no enforceable ag-gag law in the state of Iowa. 

Kansas law overturned

Kansas passed its ag-gag law in 1990, and has the distinction of having the oldest such law in the country.  Although the law was long-standing, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas still determined that it was unconstitutional. 

What exactly did the law say? The Kansas law, among other things, made it illegal, “without the effective consent of the owner,” to “enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or by any other means” with the “intent to damage the animal facility.”  The law also made it illegal for someone to conceal themselves in order to record conditions or to damage the facility.  “Effective consent” could be obtained by “force, fraud, deception, duress, or threat,” meaning under the law, it was not permissible for an undercover whistleblower to apply for a job at an animal facility and work at the facility if they really intended to record and disseminate the conditions. 

In a 39-page opinion, the court explained its reasoning for striking down the law.  Following a familiar formula for First Amendment cases, the court found that the law did in fact regulate speech, not just conduct. The court stated that the “prohibition on deception” in the law prohibited what an animal rights investigator could say to an animal facility owner, and that the outlawing of picture taking at animal facilities affected the investigator’s creation and dissemination of information, which the Supreme Court has found to be speech.  Next, the court found that the law prohibited speech on the basis of its content; to determine whether someone had violated the law, they would have to look at the content of the investigator’s statement to the animal facility owner.  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the law did not prohibit deceiving the facility owner if the investigator intended to disseminate favorable information about the facility.  Moving on, the court cited Supreme Court decisions to show that false speech is indeed protected under the First Amendment.  Since the court found that the law prohibited speech, on the basis of its content, and that false speech is protected, it had to apply strict scrutiny when considering the constitutionality of the law.  Applying this test, the court explained that the law did “not prevent everyone from violating the property and privacy rights of animal facility owners,” instead, it prevented “only those who violate said rights with intent to damage the enterprise conducted at animal facilities.”  As such, the law did not stand up to strict scrutiny because it was “underinclusive”—it applied to a small group of people with a certain viewpoint, but nobody else. 

Based upon its reasoning above, the court did overturn most of the Kansas ag-gag law. However, it is worth noting that it upheld the part of the law that prohibits physically damaging or destroying property or animals at an animal facility without effective consent from the owner. 

What’s on the horizon?

The next two ag-gag decisions will likely be made by courts in Iowa and North Carolina.  We discussed the Iowa case above—the court will have to determine whether the slightly different language in the new law passes constitutional muster.  We’re also continuing to watch the lawsuit in North Carolina, which has been working its way through the courts for several years now.  North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law is interesting in that it doesn’t just prevent secret recording and related actions at livestock facilities, but also prohibits such actions in “nonpublic areas” of a person or company’s premises.

By: Ellen Essman, Friday, January 24th, 2020

There’s always something going on with the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.  Last September, we wrote a post about how the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule would replace the 2015 Obama rule until the Trump administration finalized its new rule.  Well, the final rule was just announced by the EPA on January 24, 2020.  So, what does the new rule categorize as “waters of the United States?” Are there any differences between the rule as it was proposed in February of 2019 and the final rule? Will this version of WOTUS stick?

What is (and isn’t) WOTUS now?

The Trump EPA’s WOTUS rewrite maps out which waters are and are not waters of the United States. The following are WOTUS in 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.

Notably, this definition is a great deal shorter than the 2015 iteration of the rule, meaning that less waters fall under the rule. For a refresher on the 2015 rule, we discussed it at length here.

In addition, the new rule contains a much longer list of waters that are not WOTUS:

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  •  Ephemeral 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.

A draft version of the final rule is available here, and the EPA has a webpage with more information on the rule here.

Changes made to proposed rule

The most significant difference between the proposed rule and the final rule is the treatment of some waters connected by ephemeral streams.  Ephemeral streams are those streams that only last for a short time after precipitation.  In the proposed version of the rule, if upstream perennial and intermittent tributaries were connected to a water of the United States by an ephemeral stream, they were not WOTUS.  The final rule changes this, and such tributaries are WOTUS if they have a surface water connection to a downstream water of the United States during a normal year.  To make a long story short, the final rule protects some bodies of water that the proposed rule left out. 

So, WOTUS is set in stone now, right?

Not exactly.  In addition to the ongoing lawsuits over the brief recodification of the 1986/1988 rules, (see our post here), it is almost certain that environmental groups and some states will file lawsuits against the new WOTUS rule.  Additionally, while many in the world of agriculture cheer the new rule, there are other groups that have already spoken out against it.  For example, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which includes many EPA employees, scientists, and lawyers, filed a lengthy complaint against the rule with the Inspector General. In the complaint, PEER argues that the new rule violates EPA’s “Scientific Integrity Policy,” which EPA employees must follow when making decisions. PEER alleges that top employees at the EPA did not follow this policy when writing the rule because the rule was not based on science, and EPA staff with expertise in the area were not consulted. While the new rule is currently the law of the land, we’ll have to wait and see how long it will last.  Challenges like the PEER complaint will have to be addressed, as well as an inevitable wave of lawsuits. Like the 2015 rule, the lawsuits and challenges will likely alter and/or interrupt the implementation of this so-called “final” rule.

By: Ellen Essman, Friday, January 17th, 2020

Lawsuits against the U.S. EPA and individual states seem to be a popular strategy to address water pollution problems.  Last April, we wrote about Lucas County, Ohio and its suit against the EPA over water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie.  Since that time, a federal judge has given another lawsuit concerning Lake Erie, filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), the green light.  But not all litigation concerns Ohio waters—recently, Maryland’s attorney general was directed to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania over water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.   Here are summaries of these two developments.

Environmental Law & Policy Center vs. EPA

We wrote about this lawsuit in February 2019, when ELPC had just filed its complaint.  Essentially, ELPC contended that the U.S. EPA violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without instituting a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants going into the lake.  You can get more details on this case by reading our blog post, here.  Subsequently, EPA moved to dismiss the complaint.  In addition, Lucas County joined ELPC as co-plaintiffs. 

On November 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied EPA’s motion to dismiss.  Judge James Carr ruled that the case can go forward, finding that ELPC “plausibly alleges that Ohio EPA has clearly and unambiguously refused to develop a TMDL for Western Lake Erie.” This means that the action will go forward and that ELPC will be able to argue the case on the merits.  You can read the ruling here.

Maryland to sue EPA, Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the governor recently sent a letter to the state’s attorney general asking him to “commence litigation” against the EPA for “failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay” TMDL, and against its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, for “repeatedly falling short of necessary pollution reduction goals.” At the center of this controversy is Pennsylvania’s draft Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which Maryland’s governor alleges will cause Pennsylvania to fall far behind its 2025 pollution reduction targets in addition to not meeting the TMDL.  The governor asserts that by accepting Pennsylvania’s WIP with very few changes, the EPA is failing to enforce Pennsylvania’s compliance with the established TMDL.

What’s next?

It typically takes these types of lawsuits a while to work through the courts. The way the courts decide these cases will affect how TMDLs are viewed.  Are TMDLs necessary under the CWA and enforceable, as the plaintiffs claim? Or are TMDLs simply soft goals and guidelines for reducing pollution that EPA does not necessarily have to enforce?  Ultimately, outcomes of these cases could have implications for agricultural runoff, which can be a contributor to pollution in both Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay. 

By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, January 14th, 2020

A new rule proposed by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) covers a topic that has been up in the air for more than a decade.  The 2008 Farm Bill called on the Secretary of Agriculture to create regulations meant to guide the USDA in determining whether or not a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer gave a person or locality “any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage” when purchasing livestock and meat products. The Secretary of Agriculture entrusted the rulemaking to USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).  GIPSA did propose versions of the rule in 2010 and 2016, but neither ever went into effect due to congressional prohibitions on such rulemaking and a presidential transition, respectively. (The anticipated regulations have long been referred to as the “Farmer Fair Practice Rules.”) Once Trump came into office, his administration did away with GIPSA and gave its responsibilities to AMS, further delaying the rulemaking. 

After all this time, what does AMS propose for the Farmer Fair Practice Rules?  On January 13, AMS published its proposed rule in the Federal Register.  AMS would add a section to the Packers & Stockyards regulations, which would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to “consider one or more criteria” when deciding whether a packer, swine contractor, or live poultry dealer unfairly favored any person or locality over another in their dealings.  AMS developed four criteria to be considered when determining whether a packer, contractor, or dealer’s actions were unfair.  Actions would be deemed unfair when they:

  1. Cannot be justified on the basis of cost savings related to dealing with different producers, sellers, or growers;
  2. Cannot be justified on the basis of meeting a competitor’s prices;
  3. Cannot be justified on the basis of meeting other terms offered by a competitor; and
  4. Cannot be justified as a reasonable business decision that would be customary in the industry. 

In the rulemaking, AMS provides several examples of fair and unfair practices. AMS also emphasizes several times that the Secretary of Agriculture would not be limited to considering just those four criteria when making a decision, as each situation is unique.  In essence, the proposed language is meant to guide the Secretary’s thinking when making a determination about whether or not an action is unfair.

 If you would like to read more about this proposed rule it is available in its entirety here.  Information about submitting comments on the rule is available at the same link.  Comments on the rule may be submitted up until March, 13, 2020.  Will this version of the elusive Farmer Fair Practice Rules finally stick?  We will have to wait and see. 

By: Ellen Essman, Friday, January 10th, 2020

With 2019’s ups and downs in the weather and the marketplace, it’s likely that many farmers used the Federal Crop Insurance Program to mitigate their losses.  Those farmers whose crop insurance claims reach $200,000 or more will be audited by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency. 

What’s the purpose of an audit—does it mean you’re in trouble with the government? What can you expect when going through the audit process?  How do you prepare for an audit? What kind of records and documentation do you need?  All of these questions and more are answered in a new fact sheet we recently published through our partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center.  Click here to read the fact sheet to better prepare you for going through an audit. 

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