EPA

Cicada on a fingertip by Joe Boggs
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, June 18th, 2021

Did you know that a housefly buzzes in the key of F?  Neither did I, but I think the musical stylings of the Cicada have stolen the show this summer. 

Aside from Mother Nature’s orchestra, federal agencies have also been abuzz as they continue to review the prior administration’s agencies’ rules and regulations.  This week’s Ag Law Harvest is heavily focused on federal agency announcements that may lead to rule changes that affect you, your farm or business, or your family.

USDA issues administrative complaint against Ohio company.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) issued an administrative complaint on May 4, 2021,  against Barnesville Livestock LLC (“Barnesville”) and an Ohio resident for allegedly violating the Packers and Stockyards Act (“P&S Act”).  An investigation conducted by the AMS revealed that the Ohio auction company failed to properly maintain its custodial account resulting in shortages of $49,059 on July 31, 2019, $123,571 on November 29, 2019, and $54,519 on December 31, 2019.  Companies like Barnesville are required to keep a custodial account under the P&S Act.  A custodial account is a trust account that is designed to keep shippers’ proceeds from the sale of livestock in a secure and centralized location until those proceeds can be distributed to the seller.  According to the AMS, Barnesville failed to deposit funds equal to the proceeds received from livestock sales into the custodial account. Additionally, Barnesville reported a $15,711 insolvency in its Annual Report submission to AMS.  Operating with custodial account shortages and while insolvent are both violations of the P&S Act.  The AMS alleges that Barnesville’s violations place livestock sellers at risk of not being paid fully or completely.  If Barnesville is proven to have violated the P&S Act in an oral hearing, it may be ordered to cease and desist from violating the P&S Act and assessed a civil penalty of up to $28,061 per violation.  

USDA to invest $1 billion as first investment of new “Build Back Better” initiative.  The USDA announced that it will be investing up to $1 billion to support and expand the emergency food network so food banks and local organizations can serve their communities.  Building on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA looks to enter into cooperative agreements with state, Tribal, and local entities to more efficiently purchase food from local producers and invest in infrastructure that enables organizations to more effectively reach underserved communities.  The USDA hopes to ensure that producers receive a fair share of the food dollar while also providing healthy food for food insecure Americans.  This investment is the first part of the USDA’s Build Back Better initiative which is focused on building a better food system.  Build Back Better initiative efforts will focus on improving access to nutritious foods, address racial injustice and inequity, climate change, and provide ongoing support for producers and workers.

Colorado passes law changing agricultural employment within the state.  On June 8, 2021, Colorado’s legislature passed Senate Bill 87, also known as the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will change how agricultural employees are to be treated under Colorado law.  The bill removes the state’s exemption for agricultural labor from state and local minimum wage laws, requiring agricultural employers to pay the state’s $12.32/hour minimum wage to all employees.  Under the new law, agricultural employees are allowed to organize and join labor unions and must also be paid overtime wages for any time worked over 12 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.  The bill also mandates certain working conditions including: (1) requiring Colorado’s department of labor to implement rules to prevent agricultural workers from heat-related stress, illness, and injury when the outside temperature reaches 80 degrees or higher; (2) limiting the use of a short-handled hoe for weeding and thinning in a stooped, kneeling, or squatting position; (3) requiring an agricultural employer give periodic bathroom, meal, and rest breaks; and (4) limiting requirements for hand weeding or thinning of vegetation.  Reportedly, Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, is eager to sign the bill into law. 

Wildlife agencies release plan to improve Endangered Species Act.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) have released a plan to reverse Trump administration changes to the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The agencies reviewed the ESA following President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which directed all federal agencies to review any agency actions during the Trump administration that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration objectives.  The agencies look to reverse five ESA regulations finalized by the Trump administration which include the FWS’ process for considering exclusions from critical habitat designations, redefining the term “habitat,” reinstating prior regulations for listing species and designating critical habitats, and reinstating protections under the ESA to species listed as threatened.  Critics of the agencies’ plan claim that the current administration’s proposals would remove incentives for landowners to cooperate in helping wildlife.  

EPA announces intent to revise the definition of “waters of the United States.”  On June 9, 2021, the EPA and the Department of the Army (the “Agencies”) announced that they intend to change the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”), in order to protect the nation’s water resources.  The Agencies’ also filed a motion in a Massachusetts federal court requesting that the court send the Trump administration’s Navigable Water Protection Rule (“NWPR”) back to the Agencies so they can initiate a new rulemaking process to change the definition of WOTUS.  In the motion, the Agencies explained that pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, they have reviewed the necessary data and determined that the Trump administration’s rule has led to significant environmental harm.  The Agencies hope to restore the protections that were in place prior to the 2015 WOTUS rule.  According to the EPA, the Agencies’ new regulatory process will be guided by: (1) protecting water resources and communities consistent with the Clean Water Act; (2) the latest science and the effects of climate change on the nation’s waters; (3) practical implementation; and (4) the experience and input of the agricultural community, landowners, states, Tribes, local governments, environmental groups, and disadvantaged communities with environmental justice concerns.  The EPA is expected to release further details of the Agencies’ plans, including opportunity for public participation, in a forthcoming action.  To learn more about WOTUS, visit https://www.epa.gov/wotus.

Crop sprayer on farm field
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, June 02nd, 2021

It’s been a busy spring for legal developments in pesticides and insecticides.  Our last article summarized recent activity surrounding dicamba products.  In today’s post we cover legal activity on glyphosate and chlorpyrifos.   

Roundup award.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt another loss to Monsanto (now Bayer) on May 14, 2021, when the court upheld a $25.3 million award against the company in Hardeman v. Monsanto.   The lower court’s decision awarded damages for personal injuries to plaintiff Edward Hardeman due to Monsanto’s knowledge and failure to warn him of the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma from Roundup exposure.  Monsanto argued unsuccessfully that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) preempted the plaintiff’s claim that California’s Proposition 65 law required Monsanto to include a warning about Roundup’s carcinogenic risks on its label.  That requirement, according to Monsanto, conflicted with FIFRA because the EPA had determined via a letter that a cancer warning would be considered “false and misleading” under FIFRA. The Ninth Circuit disagreed that the EPA letter preempted the California requirements.

The Court of Appeals also held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the plaintiff’s expert testimony.  Monsanto had challenged testimony from a pathologist whom it alleged was not qualified to speak as an expert.  But the court agreed that the witness testimony met the standard that expert opinions be “reliably based” on epidemiological evidence.

Monsanto also challenged the damages themselves.  The award in Hardeman included $20 million in punitive damages that the district court reduced from $75 million originally awarded by the jury.  While $75 million seemed “grossly excessive,” the appellate court reasoned, $20 million did not, especially considering Monsanto’s reprehensibility, because evidence of the carcinogenic risk of glyphosate was knowable by Monsanto. 

Roundup settlement.  In a second Roundup case, a California district court last week rejected a motion to approve a $2 billion settlement by Monsanto (now Bayer) to a proposed class of users exposed to Roundup or diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma who have not yet filed lawsuits.  The offer by Bayer in Ramirez, et al. v. Monsanto Co. included legal services, compensation, research and assistance with non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, and changes on the Roundup label advising users of a link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but would require class members to waive their right to sue for punitive damages if they contract non-Hodgkin lymphoma and stipulate to the opinion of a seven-member science panel about whether Roundup causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

The judge determined that the settlement would accomplish a lot for Bayer by reducing its litigation and settlement exposure, but it would greatly diminish the future settlement value of claims and “would accomplish far less for the Roundup users who have not been diagnosed with NHL (non-Hodgkin lymphoma)—and not nearly as much as the attorneys pushing this deal contend.”   The court also determined that the benefits of the medical assistance and compensation components of the settlement, to last for four years, were greatly exaggerated and vastly overstated.  The proposed stipulation to a science panel also received the court’s criticism. “The reason Monsanto wants a science panel so badly is that the company has lost the “battle of the experts” in three trials,” the court stated.  Concluding that “mere tweaks cannot salvage the agreement,” the court denied the motion for preliminary approval and advised that a new motion would be required if the parties could reach a settlement that reasonably protects the interest of Roundup users not yet diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Bayer responded to the court’s rejection immediately with a “five-point plan to effectively address potential future Roundup claims.”  The plan includes a new website with scientific studies relevant to Roundup safety; engaging partners to discuss the future of glyphosate-based producers in the U.S. lawn and garden market; alternative solutions for addressing Roundup claims including the possible use of an independent scientific advisory panel; reassessment of ongoing efforts to settle existing claims; and continuing current cases on appeal.

Chlorpyrifos.  The insecticide chlorpyrifos also had its share of legal attention this spring. Chlorpyrifos was first registered back in 1965 by Dow Chemical but its use has dropped somewhat since then. Its largest producer now is Corteva, who announced in 2020 that it would end production of its Lorsban chlorpyrifos product in 2021.  That’s good timing according to the strongly worded decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in late April that the EPA must either revoke or modify all food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos within sixty days. 

The plaintiffs in the case of League of United Latin American Citizens v. Regan originally requested a review of the tolerances in 2007 based on the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), which addresses pesticide residues in or on a food.  FFDCA requires EPA to establish or continue a tolerance level for food pesticide residues only if the tolerance is safe and must modify or rescind a tolerance level that is not safe.  Plaintiffs claimed the tolerances for chlorpyrifos are not safe based upon evidence of neurotoxic effects of the pesticide on children.  They asked the EPA to modify or rescind the tolerances.  The EPA denied the request, although that decision came ten years later in 2017 after the agency repeatedly refused to make a decision on the safety of the product.  The Obama Administration had announced that it would ban chlorpyrifos, but the Trump Administration reversed that decision in 2017.

Plaintiffs objected to the EPA’s decision not to change or revoke chlorpyrifos tolerance, arguing that the agency should have first made a scientific finding on the safety of the product.  The EPA again rejected the argument, which led to the Ninth Circuit’s recent review.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the EPA had wrongfully denied the petition, as it contained sufficient evidence indicating that a review of the chlorpyrifos tolerance levels was necessary.  The EPA’s denial of the petition for review was “arbitrary and capricious,” according to the court.  “The EPA has sought to evade, through one delaying tactic after another, its plain statutory duties,” the court stated. 

More to come.  While the spring held many legal developments in pesticide law, the rest of the year will see more decisions.  The Roundup litigation is far from over, and the same can be said for dicamba.  How will the EPA under the new administration handle pesticide review and registration, and the court's order to address chlorpyrifos tolerances?  Watch here for these and other legal issues with pesticides that will outlive the spring.

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Equipment spraying pesticides or herbicides on farm field
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, June 01st, 2021

Spring is a common time for farmers to deal with pesticides and insecticides, but this spring the legal system has also been busy with pesticides and insecticides.  Important legal developments with dicamba, glyphosate, and chlorpyrifos raise questions about the future of the products, with proponents on both sides pushing for and against their continued use.  In today’s post, we summarize legal activity concerning dicamba.  Part 2 to this series will cover recent developments with Roundup.

Dicamba registration lawsuits.  In April, the federal courts resumed two cases filed late last year that challenge the registration and label of dicamba products made by Bayer, BSF and Syngenta.   The cases had been on hold since February due to the change to the Biden Administration and its EPA leadership.   Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA, in federal district court in Arizona, claims that the 2020 registration of the products should not have been granted because the registration fails to meet the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) standard that a pesticide may not cause “unreasonable adverse effects” to the environment. Relief requested by the plaintiffs includes overturning the registration approvals and also ordering EPA to officially reverse via rulemaking its long-standing policy to allow states to impose local restrictions on pesticide registrations under FIFRA’s Section 24(C).   

In the D.C. district court, American Soybean Association v EPA takes the opposite approach and argues that the EPA exceeded its duties under FIFRA by imposing application cutoff dates of June 30 for soybeans and July 30 for cotton and establishing 310-foot and 240-foot buffer zones for certain endangered species.  The plaintiffs in that suit want the court to remove the cutoff dates and buffer restrictions from the approved dicamba labels.  Manufacturers Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta have intervened in the cases, which both now await responses from the EPA.

Two additional challenges to the dicamba 2020 label approval were consolidated for review to be heard together by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and now await the court’s decision.  National Family Farm Coalition v. EPA originally filed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals,  argues that EPA failed to support its conclusion of “no unreasonable adverse effects” and did not ensure that endangered species and critical habitat would not be jeopardized by approved dicamba use.  On the flip side, American Soybean Association v. EPA alleges that the 2020 label cutoff dates are too restrictive and buffer requirements are too large, which exceeds the authority granted EPA in FIFRA and the Endangered Species Act.  The EPA has filed a motion to dismiss the cases but the plaintiffs have asked to be returned to the Ninth Circuit. 

Bader Farms Appeal.  The$265 jury verdict awarded last year to Bader Farms, which successfully argued that Monsanto was responsible for harm to its peach farms resulting from dicamba drift, is on appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Monsanto filed its brief on appeal in March, arguing that the verdict should be reversed for several reasons:  because the court had not required Bader Farms to prove that Monsanto had manufactured or sold the herbicides responsible for the damages, which could have resulted from third party illegal uses of herbicides; because the damages were based on “speculative lost profits”; and because the $250 million award of punitive damages violated state law in Missouri.

Office of Inspector General Report.  The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), also played a role in recent dicamba developments.  The OIG is an independent office within the EPA that audits, investigates and evaluates the EPA.  Just last week, the OIG issued a report on EPA’s decision in 2018 to conditionally register dicamba products, allowing them to be used during the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons.  That decision by EPA ultimately led to a legal challenge by environmental groups, a holding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the EPA violated FIFRA in approving the registrations, and a controversial order ceasing use of the dicamba products.  The OIG evaluated the EPA’s registration decision making process for the dicamba registration.  The title to its report, “EPA Deviated from Typical Procedures in Its 2018 Dicamba Pesticide Registration Decision” is telling of the OIG’s conclusions.

OIG determined that EPA had “varied from typical operating procedures” in several ways.  The EPA did not conduct the required internal peer reviews of scientific documents created to support the dicamba decision.  Senior leaders in the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention were “more involved” in the dicamba decision than in other pesticide registration decisions, resulting in senior-level changes to or omissions from scientific analyses to support policy decisions.  EPA staff were “constrained or muted in sharing their scientific integrity concerns” on the dicamba registrations. The result of these atypical operating procedures by the EPA, according to the OIG, was substantial understatement or lack of acknowledgement of dicamba risks and the eventual decision by the Ninth Circuit to vacate the registrations.

The OIG recommended three actions the EPA should take in response to the report:  requiring senior managers or policy makers to document changes or alterations to scientific opinions, analyses, and conclusions in interim and final pesticide registration decisions along with their basis for changes or alterations; requiring an assistant administrator-level verification statement that Scientific Integrity Policy requirements were reviewed and adhered to during pesticide registration decisions; and conducting annual training for staff and senior managers and policy makers to promote a culture of scientific integrity and affirm commitment to the Scientific Integrity Policy.   The EPA had already taken action on the OIG’s first and third recommendations but has not resolved the second. 

Will the OIG Report affect ongoing litigation on dicamba, or lead to additional lawsuits?  That’s a critical question without an immediate answer, and one to keep an eye on beyond this spring.

To read more about legal issues with dicamba, visit our partner, The National Agricultural Law Center and its excellent series on "The Deal with Dicamba."

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Posted In: Crop Issues, Environmental, Food
Tags: dicamba, EPA, FIFRA, Bader Farms
Comments: 0
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: 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. 

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, Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

You’re never going to make everyone happy.  This is especially true when it comes to the federal definition of “waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The definition of WOTUS has changed over the years in order to adapt to numerous court decisions.  The Obama administration’s 2015 rule has been litigated so much that a patchwork of enforcement has been created across the country, with some states falling under the 2015 rule and others falling under the previous iterations of the rule from 1986 and 1988.  In fact, in New Mexico, parts of the state follow one rule and other parts follow the other.  You can see the current state breakdown here.  

To add even more chaos to all of this confusion, the Trump administration decided to repeal and replace Obama’s 2015 rule.  In September, a rule was announced that would repeal the 2015 WOTUS rule and replace it with the 1986 and 1988 rule.  This reversion would not be permanent; the 1986/1988 rule is simply a placeholder until the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalize a new WOTUS rule to replace it. The repeal is set to become effective in December.  You can read our blog post on the repeal here

Of course, there are those who are unhappy with the 1986/1988 rule being reinstated, even if only for a time.  In October, two lawsuits were filed against the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in federal district courts.  In South Carolina, environmental groups sued because they feel that the 1986/1988 rules do not go far enough to protect waters.  On the other hand, in the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association sued because they feel that returning to the 1986/1988 rules goes too far in regulating water.  Below, we will briefly break down the arguments in each of these lawsuits. 

South Carolina lawsuit

Following the October repeal announcement, environmental groups, including the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, claiming that the repeal rulemaking was unlawful.  In their complaint, the environmental groups make several arguments.  They allege that the repeal rulemaking violates the Due Process Clause, Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and Supreme Court precedent.  They say that the Due Process Clause has been violated because the rulemaking was not undertaken with an open mind, instead it was already pre-judged or all but decided before the process even started.  They cite many violations of the APA—including failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for the repeal, failing to discuss alternatives to repealing the rule, and failing to provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment on the rulemaking.  Additionally, the environmental groups claim that the repeal “illegally departs from Justice Kennedy’s” opinion in the Rapanos case. Ultimately, Kennedy’s opinion in Rapanos is what led the EPA and Corps to scrap the 1986/1988 rule and create the 2015 rule to be more consistent with that opinion.  Therefore, the environmental groups argue that going back to the 1986/1988 version would violate Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test for WOTUS, which invalidated the old version of the rule.  In other words, the environmental groups believe that going back to the 1980s rules will result in less waters being protected.

New Mexico lawsuit

The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.  In the complaint, NMCGA asks the court to enjoin, or stop the enforcement of the repeal rule, claiming that the rule violates the CWA, the Congressional Review Act, the Commerce Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Non-delegation Doctrine, and the Tenth Amendment.  The NMCGA’s argument hinges on the definition of “navigable waters.” Under the CWA, “navigable waters” are the same as WOTUS.  Like the environmental groups in South Carolina, NMCGA interprets the Rapanos decision as invalidating provisions of the 1986/1988 WOTUS rule.  NMCGA, however, reads Rapanos as limiting “navigable waters” to only the waters that are actually navigable, or “navigable-in-fact.” Thus, unlike the environmental groups, NMCGA believes that both the 1986/1988 rule and the 2015 rule result in more waters being regulated than is allowed under the CWA and Supreme Court decisions. 

Will the tide turn on WOTUS in the future?

Despite the Trump EPA’s repeal and upcoming replacement of the 2015 rule, the future of WOTUS is anything but certain.  The lawsuits in South Carolina and New Mexico are just the latest proof of that. What is more, the lawsuits to enjoin the 2015 rule are still ongoing, and it is unclear whether they will be wiped out when the repeal rule becomes effective in December.  When the replacement rule is finally published, there is no doubt even more lawsuits will follow. It’s also important to remember that we have an election next year, so if there’s a new administration, they’ll probably put their own stamp on WOTUS. 

By: Ellen Essman, Thursday, June 06th, 2019

The controversy over the 2015 Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule never really leaves the news. Case in point: last week, on May 28, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas decided to keep a preliminary injunction that prevents the enforcement of the 2015 version of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, meaning that the 2015 rule does not currently apply in those states.  Meanwhile, at the end of March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio was not persuaded by Ohio and Tennessee to issue a preliminary injunction which would have halted the execution of the 2015 rule in those states.  All of this judicial activity is taking place while the Trump administration is working on a replacement for the Obama administration’s 2015 rule. 

WOTUS background

If you’re a regular follower of the Ag Law Blog, you know we’ve written numerous updates on the WOTUS saga.  For a refresher, the WOTUS rule defines which waters are considered “waters of the United States,” and are consequently protected under the Clean Water Act. In 2015, the Obama administration promulgated its final WOTUS rule, which many agricultural groups and states felt regulated too many waters.  Needless to say, many lawsuits over the rule ensued. The Trump administration, hoping to replace the Obama-era rule, released its new proposed rule on February 14, 2019.  The comment period for the proposed rule ended on April 15, 2019.  The new rule is forthcoming, but in the meantime, due to all of the litigation, whether or not the 2015 WOTUS rule is applicable varies by state.  For an explanation of the 2015 rule and the new proposed rule, see our previous blog post here

Judge continues to block 2015 WOTUS in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi…

At the end of May, Judge George C. Hanks Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas handed down a decision remanding the 2015 WOTUS rule to the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers and ordering that a previously issued preliminary injunction stay in place, meaning that the government should not implement the 2015 rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  While Judge Hanks declined to take up the questions raised by the plaintiffs about the constitutionality of the 2015 rule, he did determine that the agencies violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) at the rule’s conception.  The APA is a federal law that controls how federal agencies must go about making regulations.  Importantly, the APA dictates that agencies should give the American public notice of a proposed rule, as well as a chance to comment on a proposed rule.  In the case of Obama’s 2015 WOTUS rule, the definition of “adjacent waters” was changed from being based upon a “hydrologic connection” in the proposed rule to being based on how many feet separated the waters in the final rule. Interested parties did not have any chance to comment on the change before it was included in the final rule.  What is more, interested parties did not have the chance to comment on the final report that served as the “technical basis” for the rule.  For these reasons, Judge Hanks found that the final rule violated the APA.  As a result, he remanded the rule to the agencies to fix and left in place the preliminary injunction blocking the implementation of the rule in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. 

…but 2015 WOTUS still applies in Ohio and Tennessee

A decision in the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio came to the opposite conclusion of the Texas case.  In March of this year, Judge Sargus denied the states’ motion for a preliminary injunction against carrying out the 2015 WOTUS rule.  Sargus did not agree that Ohio and Tennessee were being irreparably harmed by having to follow the 2015 rule, and therefore did not go through with what he called the “extraordinary measure” of providing the states preliminary injunctive relief.  Basically, Ohio and Tennessee were not persuasive enough in their argument, and “failed to draw the Court’s attention” to any specific harm the states faced from the 2015 rule.  Therefore, as of this writing, the 2015 WOTUS rule still applies in Ohio and Tennessee. 

What regulation applies in which states?

All of these lawsuits with different outcomes beg the question: what rule is applicable in which state?  EPA has a map depicting which states must currently follow the 2015 rule, and which states instead must follow the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS.  The map has not been updated since September of 2018.  Since the last update, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, whose governors’ mansions flipped from red to blue in November, have pulled out of lawsuits against the 2015 rule.  These withdrawals could affect which version of WOTUS applies in these states. 

Although the outcomes in the different lawsuits throughout the country presently affect which version of the WOTUS rule applies in which state, it is not clear how the rulings will ultimately affect the 2015 WOTUS rule.  The Trump administration is currently carrying out its plan to scrap the rule and replace it with new language, which may render all of the existing legal fights over the 2015 rule irrelevant. 

What’s next?

The new WOTUS rule, which is expected in its final form later this year, will probably not mark the end of the WOTUS debate.  While implementation of the new rule will likely make the aforementioned lawsuits moot, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be out of the woods yet.  With all the contention over this topic, it is likely lawsuits will be filed challenging the new rule, as well.  Disagreement over what makes up WOTUS might be around for as long as rivers flow. 

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