Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The U.S. Senate has passed a bill sponsored by Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman that intends to improve the federal response to water pollution by amending the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998. Senate Bill 1057 will now move on to the House of Representatives for debate.
What are harmful algal blooms and hypoxia?
The EPA defines harmful algal blooms as “overgrowths of algae in water,” some of which “produce dangerous toxins in fresh or marine water.” The toxins can be dangerous for humans and animals. One major contributor to algal blooms is an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Hypoxiacan also be caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. The EPA defines hypoxia as “low oxygen” in water. Hypoxia sometimes goes hand-in-hand with algal blooms, because as algae dies, it uses oxygen, which in turn removes oxygen from the water. Algal blooms and hypoxia have been a problem in Lake Erie and other parts of the country.
Background of the law
The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act was passed in 1998 in response to harmful algal blooms and hypoxia along the coast of the United States. When passing the law, Congress cited scientists who said both problems were caused by “excessive nutrients.” Furthermore, Congress found that harmful algal blooms had caused animal deaths, health and safety threats, and “an estimated $1,000,000,000 in economic losses” in the previous decade.
The law established an interagency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia (Task Force), which was charged with submitting an assessment to Congress on the “ecological and economic consequences” of both harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. The assessments were to include “alternatives for reducing, mitigating, and controlling” harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. A number of other reports and assessments were also required, which were to all culminate in a plan to combat and reduce the impacts of harmful algal blooms. Additionally, the Act singled out the areas of the Northern Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. For these two areas, the Act required additional progress reports and mitigation plans.
The Act has undergone a few amendments throughout the years. The amendments have expanded and/or renewed the duties of the Task Force and other state and federal actors. Most notably, amendments in 2014 created the national harmful algal bloom and hypoxia program (Program) and a comprehensive research plan and action strategy. Under the Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was charged with administering funding to programs combatting algal blooms and hypoxia, working with state, local, tribal, and international governments to research and address algal blooms and hypoxia, and supervising the creation and review of the action strategy, among other duties. The action strategy identified the “specific activities” that the Program should carry out, which activities each agency in the Task Force would be responsible for, and the parts of the country where even more specific research and activities addressing algal blooms and hypoxia would be necessary.
What changes are proposed?
SB 1057 would make a number of changes and additions to the current law. Overall, the goal of the bill seems to be to strengthen the federal government’s ability to research and respond to water pollution in the form of algal blooms and hypoxia. The most important amendments in the bill would:
- Add the Army Corps of Engineers to the list of agencies on the Task Force.
- Combine the sections on freshwater and coastal algal blooms, and require that scientific assessments be submitted to Congress every five years for both types of water.
- Establish a website that would provide information about the harmful algal bloom and hypoxia program (Program) activities to “local and regional stakeholders.”
- Require the Task Force to work with extension programs to promote the Program and “improve public understanding” about harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.
- Require the use of “cost effective methods” when carrying out the law.
- Require the development of “contingency plans for the long-term monitoring of hypoxia.”
- Fund the Program and the comprehensive research plan and action strategy from 2019 through 2023.
Most importantly, SB 1057 would add a completely new section to the law that would allow federal officials to “determine whether a hypoxia or harmful algal bloom event is an event of national significance.” Under the new language, the federal official can independently determine that such an event is occurring, or the Governor of an affected state can request that a determination to be made.
When making the determination, the federal official would have to take a number of factors into consideration including:
- Toxicity of the harmful algal bloom;
- Severity of the hypoxia;
- Potential to spread;
- Economic impact;
- Relative size in relation to the past five occurrences of harmful algal blooms or hypoxia events that occur on a recurrent or annual basis; and
- Geographic scope, including the potential to affect several municipalities, to affect more than one State, or to cross an international boundary.
Finally, in the case an event of national significance is found, the the federal official would have the power to give money to the affected state or locality to mitigate the damages. However, SB 1057 states that the federal share of money awarded cannot be more than 50% of the cost of any activity. The federal official would have the power to accept donations of “funds, services, facilities, materials, or equipment” to supplement the federal money.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Text and information on SB 1057 is available here. To read the current law, click here. For further information on water pollution, check out the EPA’s pages on harmful algal blooms and hypoxia.
We're happy to return to our blog after a short summer recess, but are sad to have lost fellow blogger and Law Fellow Chris Hogan, who has moved to California. Chris is now in private practice with agricultural attorney Tim Kelleher. We are confident that California agriculture is in good hands!
Our first blog post concerns updates to Ohio’s Agricultural Fertilizer Applicator Certification Program. The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) recently revised the rules in order to fine-tune the program established in 2014 by Ohio’s legislature. ODA made several changes to the certification, education, and recordkeeping requirements for those who apply agricultural fertilizers to more than 50 acres of land in agricultural production. The changes go into effect on October 1, 2017.
Updates to the Certification Requirements
Three modifications to the certification requirements will: 1) provide additional clarity about how the certifications apply to employees, 2) adjust the cycle for when the certifications begin and expire, and 3) establish a grace period to obtain a renewal certification after a prior certification has expired.
- The new rule clarifies how the requirements apply to employees of businesses and farms, a provision that was unclear under the old rule. The certification rule requires all persons who apply fertilizer for the purpose of agricultural production on more than 50 acres of land to either personally have a certificate issued by the ODA Director, or to act under the instruction and control of a certificate holder. The person acting under the certificate holder must be either a family member of the certificate holder, or “employed by the same business or farm as the certificate holder.”
- Instead of starting on June 1 of year one and ending on May 31 of the third year, the certification period for an applicator will run from April 1 of year one until March 31of the third year. The new cycle will avoid mid-season headaches by ensuring that certifications will generally be in place prior to planting season.
- The new rule provides a grace period to certificate holders who do not renew their certificates prior to the expiration of their old certificates. If a certificate holder’s certificate expires before they complete a renewal application, the new rule gives the expired certificate holder 180 days after the date of expiration to complete the renewal process. The primary benefit of this grace period is that within the 180 day period, the application will be treated as a renewal application rather than a new application, which requires fewer training hours.
Updates to the Education Requirements
ODA has modified the education requirements in two important ways:
- The rule provides an examination option as opposed to requiring all applicants to attend a certain number of hours of agricultural nutrient training. This allows individuals who know what ODA wants them to know about the topic to bypass the hours of training requirement.
- The new rule differentiates education requirements for new certification applications and renewal applications. Fewer training hours will be required for renewal applications than new applications.
- New applicants have the option of either attending at least three hours of agricultural nutrient training or passing an ODA-approved fertilizer examination that demonstrates an “adequate knowledge of the fertilizer training requirements.” New applicants must successfully complete one of these options within the twelve months prior to applying for certification.
- Those wishing to renew their certifications have the option of either attending one hour of agricultural nutrient training or passing an ODA-approved fertilizer examination. Those who obtain their fertilizer certificate within twelve months of applying for a renewal certificate do not have to complete the renewal education requirements.
Additional Recordkeeping Requirements
The final change to the program rules adds two new recordkeeping requirements. For each application of fertilizer, the fertilizer certificate holder must record:
- The number of acres on which fertilizer is applied, and
- The total amount of fertilizer applied, by either weight or volume.
These are in addition to the current requirements, which include maintaining records of:
- The date, place, and rate of the application of fertilizer,
- An analysis of the fertilizer applied,
- The name of the individual who applied the fertilizer,
- The name of the certificate holder,
- The type of application method used,
- The soil and weather conditions at the time of application,
- The weather forecast for the day following the fertilizer application, and
- For surface applications, whether the land was frozen and/or snow covered during the fertilizer application.
Each of these must be documented within 24 hours of the application. The existing timing requirements, such as how long the applicator has to submit the information to the certificate holder, have not changed.
For more information, visit ODA’s Agricultural Fertilizer Applicator Certification web page and OSU’s Nutrient Education and Management website. The program rules in Chapter 901:5-4 of the Ohio Administrative Code are here.
By Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Ohio legislature recently enacted a bill expected to enhance Ohio’s efforts to address water quality in Lake Erie. Senate Bill 2, a far reaching environmental bill, contains several revisions to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission (OLEC) and Ohio’s Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy.
The purpose of OLEC is to advise on the development, implementation, and coordination of Lake Erie programs and policies and to oversee the management of the Lake Erie Protection Fund. For Ohio agriculture, the most important of S.B. 2’s revisions to OLEC is the expansion of OLEC’s purpose to include “issues related to nutrient-related water quality.” This change reveals a new focus on nutrient impacts on Lake Erie’s water quality and a resulting charge for OLEC to implement the Ohio EPA’s current plan for reducing phosphorous levels in the Lake by 40% by 2025.
Furthermore, S.B. 2 broadens and strengthens OLEC’s role in coordinating and funding policies, programs and priorities related to Lake Erie. Coordination with the federal government is encouraged, as is consideration of the efforts of Ohio and other Great Lakes states and countries, as well as any agreements between those states and countries and Ohio. OLEC must also publish a Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy that describes the commission’s goals and its planned uses for the Lake Erie Protection Fund. Demonstration projects and cooperative research are now acceptable uses of the fund, in addition to the previously established use of data gathering.
S.B. 2 enhances coordination between OLEC and the Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) board by bringing two members of the GLPF’s board onto OLEC’s board, which currently consists of the directors of Ohio’s EPA, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Department of Development, along with five additional members appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. S.B. 2 requires the Governor to select the two GLPF board members who will serve on the OLEC board.
Changes in S.B. 2 also call for OLEC to develop public education and outreach programs about their work and issues facing Lake Erie and to expand fundraising efforts to support their programs—namely through the promotion of the sale of Lake Erie license plates. A number of provisions regard the disposal of construction and demolition debris and dredging in Lake Erie.
The revisions in S.B. 2 are likely to better equip OLEC to carry out strategies for improving Lake Erie’s water quality. Most notably, the new law will shift some of OLEC’s focus to combating water quality problems associated with nutrient pollution, a change that will surely affect Ohio agriculture.
Federal court dismisses Clean Water Act lawsuit against Iowa drainage districts
A federal district court has dismissed the controversial Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that put the agricultural community on edge for the past two years. While the decision is favorable for agriculture, it doesn’t resolve the question of whether the water utility could prove that nitrates draining from farm fields are harming the utility’s water sources. The court’s dismissal prevents Des Moines Water Works from further asserting such claims.
The lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) utility sued irrigation districts in three Iowa counties for allowing discharges of nitrates through drainage infrastructure and into the waterways from which the utility drew its water. In addition to claiming that the discharges violate the federal Clean Water Act’s permitting requirements, DMWW also asserted nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings without compensation, and due process and equal protection claims under Iowa law. The utility sought monetary damages for the cost of removing nitrates from its water as well as an injunction ordering the drainage districts to stop the discharges with proper permits.
The federal district court first certified several questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to clarify whether Iowa law provided immunity to the drainage districts for DMWW’s claims. On January 27, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court responded in the positive, explaining that Iowa drainage districts had been immune from damages and injunctive relief claims for over a century because drainage districts “have a limited, targeted role—to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive.” The Iowa court also clarified that Iowa’s Constitution did not provide a basis for DMWW’s constitutional arguments.
Turning to the party’s claims in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, the federal district court focused on the drainage district’s motion to dismiss DMWW’s claims based on the doctrine of redressability, which requires a showing that the alleged injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision. The doctrine of redressability concludes that a plaintiff cannot have standing to sue and therefore cannot proceed in a case if the defendant doesn’t have the power to redress or remedy the injury even if the court granted the requested relief.
The drainage districts argued that they could not redress DMWW’s Clean Water Act claims because the districts had no power to regulate the nitrates flowing through the drainage systems. The court agreed, stating that “DMWW seeks injunctive relief and the assessment of civil penalties against the drainage districts arising from alleged duties and powers that the districts simply do not possess under Iowa law. DMWW may well have suffered an injury, but the drainage districts lack the ability to redress that injury.”
The federal district court also dismissed DMWW’s remaining claims against the drainage districts. DMWW argued that the immunity given the drainage districts as described by the Iowa Supreme Court prevented DMWW’s remaining claims and thus violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection, Due Process, and Takings Clauses. The federal district court found these contentions to be “entirely devoid of merit” and dismissed the state law claims of nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings, due process and equal protection. Because none of the counts against the drainage districts survived the court’s scrutiny, the court dismissed and closed the case.
What does the decision mean for agriculture?
The DMWW case was a futile but somewhat inventive attempt to allocate liability for nitrate pollution to the agricultural community. “Unregulated agricultural discharges into Iowa's rivers, lakes and streams continue to increase costs to our customers and damage Iowa's water quality and environment,” said DMWW’s CEO Bill Stowe upon filing the lawsuit. A public poll by the Des Moines Register soon after Stowe brought the DMWW lawsuit showed that 42% of the respondents agreed with him in believing that farmers should pay for nitrate removal from DMWW’s waters, while 32% thought those who lived in Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates.
If the goal is to force agriculture to reduce nutrient run off or pay for the cost of removing nutrients from waterways, the DMWW case tells us that suing those who oversee agricultural drainage infrastructure projects is not the proper mechanism for accomplishing that goal. So will the next strategy be to sue the farmers who use the nutrients and the drainage infrastructure?
One challenge in suing farmers for nutrient runoff, and the issue that was not addressed in DMWW, is whether nutrient runoff from farm fields carried through drainage systems constitutes a “point source” that requires regulation under the Clean Water Act, or whether nutrient runoff fits within the agricultural exemption under the Clean Water Act. That law defines a “point source” as “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,” but states that point sources do not include “agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.” What we still don’t know after two years of DMWW litigation is whether a court would put the transport of agricultural nutrients through drainage systems in the point source definition or would consider it an agricultural exemption from the point source definition.
A second challenge in an attempt to bring agricultural nutrients under the Clean Water Act is the burden of proof upon the plaintiff to prove the actual origin of a downstream nutrient—who applied the nutrient that ended up downstream? DMWW sought to minimize this challenge by suing the drainage districts that oversee the entire region. But had the case proceeded, DMWW still would have had to trace the nutrients to the region, a difficult task.
The agricultural community expects that its voluntary efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields will positively impact water quality and stem the possibility of more litigation like the DMWW case. A multitude of voluntary efforts are underway, such as Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the flourish of cover crops in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Ohio has also added a regulatory approach that requires farmers to engage in fertilizer application training. Let’s hope these initiatives will reduce nutrient impacts before another party is willing to point its finger at agriculture and pursue a lawsuit like DMWW.