As our readers can probably tell by now, there has been a lot happening in the agricultural law world over the past couple of weeks. From the Lake Erie Bill of Rights going on the ballot in Toledo to a new court decision on wedding barns, we’ve done our best to keep you in the know. While the legislative sessions in Congress and the Ohio General Assembly have started to shift into a higher gear, covering those bills will take up a lot of space, so be on the lookout for a legislative update soon.
For now, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
Yep, more WOTUS. The U.S. EPA has announced new public hearings regarding its proposed revised definition of Waters of the United States. The hearing will be held on Wednesday, February 27th and Thursday, February 28th at the Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, Kansas. For those who wish to provide input, but are unable to make the trip, the U.S. EPA will accept written comments from the public online at http://www.regulations.gov with the docket ID number: EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0149. The online comment portal will accept new submissions until April 14th. The text of the proposed rule, which the U.S. EPA released just in time for Valentine’s Day, is available on the online comment portal page as well as in the Federal Register. For more information about either attending the meeting or submitting a comment to the U.S. EPA, visit the Federal Register’s webpage here. For more information about WOTUS rulemaking, see our most recent WOTUS blog post, or visit the U.S. EPA’s webpage here.
Conservation funding for federal lands could be restored under U.S. Senate bill. In a sign of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate passed the National Resources Management Act by a vote of 92-8. If the House approves and it receives the President’s signature, the bill would modify a number laws addressing the management and conservation of federal lands, and would also restore funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had expired last fall. This fund primarily supports the protection of federal public lands and waters, but it also promotes voluntary conservation on private lands and awards grants to states for the acquisition and development of parks and outdoor recreation sites. Also in the bill are two specific changes of note for Ohio. First, section 6004(c) of the bill would increase the cap on total spending for the Ohio & Erie National Heritage Canalway from $10 million to $20 million. Second, section 2502 of the bill would extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from Illinois to Pennsylvania, which will include portions in Ohio. You can read the full text of the bill and see the official analyses on Congress’s website here.
FFA charter amendments approved by Congress and the President. Citing issues arising from the U.S. Department of Education’s not filling seats on the National FFA Board of Directors, the National FFA sought an amendment to its charter. Congress originally granted the charter in 1950, and any changes to the charter must be done so by an act of Congress. One of the major changes sought by National FFA was a reduction in the number of seats on the board of directors that must be appointed by the Department of Education. By not filling all of the seats on the Board of Directors, the National FFA faced difficulty making decisions because it often could not meet its quorum for meetings. The new amendments reduce the organization’s reliance on an appointment to its board of directors by the U.S. Department of Education, which increases the organization’s ability to self-govern. You can read the text of the bill on Congress’s website here, or visit the National FFA’s webpage on frequently asked questions about the charter revision here.
The PACT Act is back. The Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Torture Act has been reintroduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. The act would allow for significant fines and up to seven years in prison for those convicted of animal crushing, creating animal crushing videos, or distributing animal crushing videos. The bill defines crushing as “actual conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.” However, the bill does contain exceptions for conduct that is related to “customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice[s];” “the slaughter of animals for food;” legal hunting, trapping, and fishing activities; research; defense of a human; and euthanizing an animal. Many in the agriculture community have opposed the bill, arguing that it is duplicative in light of animal protections created by the states and that it risks courts and juries interpreting the language too broadly. At this time, the bill has only been introduced in the U.S. House and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Nebraska wind farms sue to enforce contract and keep utility from flying off into the sunset. Three Nebraska windfarms in a power supply contract with the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) have filed suit to prevent the utility from backing out of the contract. The wind farms filed a complaint in federal court in Nebraska on January 30th, alleging that NPPD expressed its intention to terminate a power purchase agreement, and that doing so would be wrongful. The complaint explains NPPD’s position that the wind farms materially violated the contract by investing in other businesses and operations. The plaintiffs disagree that there was a breach, but say that even if there was, NPPD cannot terminate the contract because it knew of the transactions. The plaintiffs also note that NPPD has eminent domain power. They argue that by terminating the contract, NPPD knows that the wind farms will likely enter default with creditors. This could allow NPPD to acquire the rights of the wind farms through a foreclosure sale or eminent domain. To prevent NPPD from terminating the contract, the parties requested, and were granted, a temporary restraining order until March 1st that requires NPPD to honor the contract. The case is cited as Laredo Ridge Wind, LLC v. Nebraska Pub. Power Dist., No. 8:19-cv-45 (D. Neb.).
Wisconsin Supreme Court asked to decide scope of agency power to regulate agriculture. A Wisconsin court of appeals has certified two cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, asking the court to determine the extent of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s authority to regulate agriculture in order to protect groundwater. A certification represents a lower court seeking guidance on an issue that the lower court believes it is not in the best position to decide without knowing what the higher court thinks. These cases are important for Wisconsin because they pertain to a law passed in 2011 that restrained authority of state agencies to act beyond express grants of authority by the state legislature. Specifically, the cases ask whether the Wisconsin DNR can impose conditions on issuing a permit beyond the conditions stated in a statute. The affected parties in the cases range from dairy farms to manufacturers and from food processors to municipal water utilities. Environmental groups hope that state agencies may take a more expansive look at environmental impacts when reviewing permit applications. The two certification orders are available here and here.
We can’t say that Lake Erie is back in the news, because lately it hasn’t left the news. However, there is a new lawsuit in federal court that seeks further action from either the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or the Ohio EPA regarding Lake Erie water quality. Filed on February 7, 2019 by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (“ELPC”) and the Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, this new lawsuit alleges that the U.S. EPA improperly signed off on action taken by the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without implementing a Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) to restrict discharges such as agricultural runoff. The plaintiffs weren’t necessarily unhappy about the designation, but they were not happy about the lack of a TMDL.
Designating a waterway as impaired indicates low water quality, and triggers requirements to take action to improve water quality. A state must classify its waterways, and that classification guides the selection of which types of regulations to impose and the priority of fixing a waterway. The Ohio EPA’s designation of Lake Erie as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act was motivated by a previous lawsuit brought by the ELPC. In that lawsuit, a federal court ordered the U.S. EPA to review the Ohio EPA’s compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, which is something the plaintiffs in this new case want the court to order again. That case remains pending, and is cited as Environmental Law and Policy Center v. U.S. EPA, Case No. 17-cv-1514 (N.D. Ohio).
The plaintiffs allege that the new designation alone is not enough, and that the Ohio EPA must take more action. The complaint in the new lawsuit alleges that the Ohio EPA must establish a TMDL for western Lake Erie. Under the federal Clean Water Act, TMDLs identify the maximum amounts of a pollutant that a body of water can handle in order to meet water quality standards. The U.S. EPA describes these as a “starting point or planning tool for restoring water quality” that states often use as targets when crafting comprehensive plans to attain water quality. The complaint alleges that the Ohio EPA must prioritize creating a TMDL for western Lake Erie, but the Ohio EPA has said that it hopes to pursue an alternative approach to water quality attainment without the need for a TMDL. The plaintiffs do not believe that this is enough.
But why then is the new lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, and not the Ohio EPA? Congress granted the U.S. EPA oversight over water quality for federally navigable waters, or Waters of the United States, which include Lake Erie. The complaint alleges that by approving Ohio’s designation of Lake Erie without a plan and timeline to reach water quality standards, the U.S. EPA made an improper and arbitrary decision under the federal Clean Water Act. The plaintiffs want the U.S. EPA to rescind its approval of the Ohio EPA’s action. After this, the U.S. EPA would have to require the Ohio EPA to submit a new binding plan to bring Lake Erie into attainment with water quality standards, or the U.S. EPA can decide that Ohio has refused to submit a plan and exercise its authority to create its own plan for Ohio. The complaint also seeks an award of attorney’s fees and costs to cover the expenses incurred by the plaintiffs in bringing the lawsuit.
Click HERE to view the complaint. The case is cited as Environmental Law & Policy Center v. U.S. EPA, Case No. 3:19-cv-00295 (N.D. Ohio). Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for more updates on litigation involving Lake Erie.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Ohio EPA has released its draft water quality report for 2018 and the report proposes to list the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as “impaired.” Readers of the Ag Law Blog will remember that the road to this listing has been long and complicated. The numerous posts we’ve written on this subject can be found by searching “impaired waters” on our blog website.
The controversy began in the fall of 2016, when Michigan and Ohio submitted their respective impaired waters lists to the U.S. EPA. Every two years, a regulation promulgated under the Clean Water Act requires states to turn in a list of their impaired waters. Michigan listed the waters of Lake Erie under its jurisdiction as impaired, while Ohio did not list the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired. The waters described by Michigan as impaired and those not listed by Ohio are basically one in the same, hence the problem. The U.S. EPA approved Michigan’s list in early 2017, but made no decisions about Ohio’s list.
As a result of the discrepancy over Lake Erie, environmental and other groups sued the U.S. EPA to make a decision about Ohio’s impaired waters list. On May 18, 2017, the U.S. EPA approved Ohio’s list. However, on January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its earlier approval and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of the status of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.
With all of this back and forth and litigation, it is now long past the due date for the 2016 impaired waters list. As a result, the draft water quality report submitted by the Ohio EPA on March 22 contains the 2018 list.
Ohio EPA’s 2018 Draft Water Quality Report
In its draft water quality report, the Ohio EPA outlines the general condition of Ohio’s waters and lists “impaired waters” that are not meeting federal or state water quality goals and waters that have improved to meet water quality standards. For the first time, the EPA includes the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie on its impaired list. The impaired designation is for recreational uses “due to harmful algae” and for drinking water “due to occurrences of microcystin.” (Microcystin are harmful toxins created by blue-green algae. More information about these toxins is here.) Other new areas listed as impaired for drinking water due to harmful algae are Sims Run, parts of the Maumee River, the headwaters to Grand River and the headwaters of Cowan Creek in the Little Miami River watershed.
Next steps and public comments
While an impaired listing may not create immediate change in the Western Basin, it will require Ohio to create total maximum daily loads, which are the amounts of different pollutants allowed to be discharged each day in the open waters. This could eventually mean increased regulation of certain pollutants in the area, which may include agricultural nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Only time will tell.
The EPA is accepting written comments on its proposed list of impaired waters. Submit comments by May 4, 2018, to email@example.com, or to Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049, attn: 303(d) comments. Following public review and comments, the agency will submit a final report to the U.S. EPA. The agency published a news release on the draft water quality report and is hosting an upcoming webinar on the report on April 25, 2018.
Read the EPA's draft water quality report here.
A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators have introduced a bill to exempt agricultural producers from reporting requirements under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). We’ve reported previously on the new mandate that would require livestock operations to report air emissions, the result of a U.S. Court of Appeals decision last year that struck down the EPA’s rule that exempted agriculture from the reporting requirements. The U.S. EPA has repeatedly requested the court for a delay of the new reporting mandate, now delayed until after May 1, 2018. The proposed legislation would establish a new exemption that would protect farmers from the upcoming reporting mandate.
Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a primary sponsor of the legislation, stated that “[t]hese reporting requirements were designed to apply to industrial pollution and toxic chemicals, not animal waste on a farm or ranch.” Co-sponsor Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) assured farmers that requiring them to “spend their time and money on reports that will go unused by EPA would be burdensome and needless.”
The text of the senators’ proposed Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act, S. 2421, is available here. The proposal includes:
- A statement that CERCLA reporting does not apply to air emissions from animal waste, including decomposing animal waste, at a farm.
- A definition for “animal waste,” which means feces, urine, or other excrement, digestive emission, urea, or similar substances emitted by animals (including any form of livestock, poultry or fish), and including animal waste that is mixed or commingled with bedding, compost, feed, soil, or any other material typically found with such waste.
- A definition of “farm,” which means a site or area (including associated structures) that is used for the production of a crop or the raising or selling of animals (including any form of livestock, poultry, or fish) and under normal conditions, produces during a farm year any agricultural products with a total value equal to not less than $1,000.
- A statement that maintains the current exemption from CERCLA reporting for applications, storage and handling of registered pesticide products.
Senator Fischer introduced S.2421 on February 13 and the Senate has referred the bill to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.
by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Assoc., Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The saga of Ohio’s designation of impaired waters continues. Readers will recall previous posts on the Ag Law Blog detailing lawsuits against the U.S. EPA for failing to approve or disapprove Ohio’s 2016 list of impaired waters within the time limit required by law. Those posts are available here and here. Eventually, on May 19, 2017, the EPA accepted the Ohio EPA’s list of impaired waters, which did not include the open waters of Lake Erie’s western basin. Our blog post regarding that decision is here. That, however, was not the end of the story. In a letter to the Ohio EPA dated January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its May 2017 approval of Ohio's impaired waters list and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of Lake Erie.
What’s the issue?
Why has Ohio’s 2016 list of impaired waters been so hotly contested? Understanding this situation requires a little bit of background information. An EPA regulation created under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) requires that states submit a list of impaired waters every two years. "Impaired waters" are those water bodies that do not or are not expected to meet the water quality standards for their intended uses. Designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of pollutants, and an action plan for meeting TMDLs.
After a state submits its impaired waters list, the EPA must approve or disapprove the designations within 30 days. In the case of Ohio’s 2016 list, Ohio did not include the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie on its impaired waters list and the EPA delayed acting on the list until far beyond the 30 day mark. On the other hand, Michigan listed all of the waters of Lake Erie within its jurisdiction as impaired, which included the open waters in the western basin of Lake Erie. By approving both Ohio’s list and Michigan’s list, the EPA was agreeing to two different designations for what could essential be the same water in the same area of Lake Erie. As a result of this discrepancy, environmental groups brought a federal lawsuit against the EPA.
EPA withdraws approval
The EPA’s recent letter to Ohio could possibly have been prompted by the lawsuit mentioned above. In its letter, the EPA withdrew its May 2017 approval...”specifically with respect to the open waters of Lake Erie.” The agency states that Ohio’s 2016 submission failed to assemble and evaluate existing data and information related to nutrients in the open waters of Lake Erie, and directs Ohio to reevaluate available data and information by April 9, 2018.
The controversy over Ohio’s 2016 designation of impaired waters has gone on so long that it's now time for a new list. Ohio must submit a 2018 designation of impaired waters to the EPA by April 1, 2018. It is very likely that the withdrawal of approval for the 2016 list will affect which waters Ohio designates as impaired on its 2018 list, particularly in regards to the western basin of Lake Erie.
The withdrawal of approval could also affect the outcome of the current lawsuit against the EPA. The environmental groups plan to persist with the lawsuit even in light of the EPA’s withdrawal. It will be interesting to see who the District Court sides with, given the fact that the EPA has now taken steps to resolve the discrepancy at the heart of the lawsuit.
The letter from the U.S. EPA to the Ohio EPA is available here.
UPDATE 2: The federal spending bill signed into law on March 23, 2018 contained a provision stating that air emissions from animal waste at a farm are not subject to CERCLA reporting requirements, nor are emissions from the application, handling or storage of registered pesticides.
UPDATE: The court has delayed these new reporting requirements for a second time-- the new date is May 1, 2018. Farm operations of certain sizes are now required to report air emissions of certain hazardous substances that exceed a reportable quantity under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. This new requirement affects livestock farmers with larger numbers of animals, as they may exceed the reportable quantity for ammonia emissions. We've authored a new Law Bulletin on Continuous Release Reporting of Air Emissions for Livestock Farms to help farms determine whether they must report air emissions and if so, how to complete the reporting process. The new bulletin is available here.
Read more about the new CERCLA air emissions reporting mandate in our earlier post.
Written by Peggy Hall and Ellen Essman
UPDATE 4: Congress has clarified in new legislation enacted on March 23, 2018, that emissions from animal waste on farms are not subject to CERCLA reporting.
UPDATE 3: The U.S. EPA has requested and received an additional reporting delay until May 1, 2018 or after and has advised that the agency will provide a notice of the specific date that farms should begin reporting once the court enters its final order.
UPDATE 2: The court has delayed theese new reporting requirements until January 22, 2018.
UPDATE 1: The EPA and several agricultural groups have requested the court for a delay of the November 15 reporting deadline, but the court has not yet responded to the request. Due to a high call volume, the EPA is now advising that producers should utilize the e-mail option for continuous reporting, rather than calling the NRC line. We explain the reporting requirements in this new Law Bulletin, Continuous Release Reporting of Air Emissions for Livestock Farms.
Beginning November 15, 2017, many livestock, poultry and equine farms must comply with reporting requirements under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) section 103. The law requires entities to report releases of hazardous substances above a certain threshold that occur within a 24-hour period. Farms have historically been exempt from most reporting under CERCLA, but in the spring of 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rule that allowed reporting exemptions for farms. As long as there is no further action by the Court to push back the effective date, farmers and operators of operations that house beef, dairy, horses, swine and poultry must begin complying with the reporting requirements on November 15, 2017.
Farmers and operators, especially of sizeable animal operations that are likely to have larger air emissions, need to understand the reporting responsibilities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published interim guidance to assist farms with the new compliance obligations. The following summarizes the agency’s guidance.
What substances to report
The EPA specifically names ammonia and hydrogen sulfide as two hazardous substances commonly associated with animal wastes that will require emissions reporting. Each substance has a reportable quantity of 100 pounds. If a farm releases 100 pounds or more of either substance to the air within a 24-hour period, the owner or operator must notify the National Response Center. A complete list of hazardous substances and their corresponding reportable quantities is here.
Note that farmers do not have to report emissions from the application of manure, and fertilizers to crops or the handling, storage and application of pesticides registered under federal law. However, a farmer must report any spills or accidents involving these substances when they exceed the reportable quantity.
How to report
Under CERCLA, farm owners and operators have two compliance options—to report each release or to follow the continuous release reporting process:
- For an individual release that meets or exceeds the reportable quantity for the hazardous substance, an owner or operator must immediately notify the National Response Center (NRC) by phone at 1-800-424-8802.
- Continuous release reporting allows the owner or operator to file an “initial continuous release notification” to the NRC and the EPA Regional Office for releases that will be continuous and stable in quantity and rate. Essentially, this puts the authorities “continuously” on notice that there will be emissions from the operation within a certain estimated range. If the farm has a statistically significant increase such as a change in the number of animals on the farm or a significant change in the release information, the farm must notify the NRC immediately. Otherwise, the farm must file a one year anniversary report with the EPA Regional Office to verify and update the emissions information and must annually review emissions from the farm. Note that a farm must submit its initial continuous release notification starting on November 15, 2017.
No reporting required under EPCRA
The litigation that led to CERCLA reporting also challenged the farm exemption from reporting for the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). EPRCRA section 304 requires facilities at which a hazardous chemical is produced, used or stored to report releases of reportable quantities from the chemicals. However, EPA explains in a statement issued on October 25, 2017 that the statute excludes substances used in “routine agricultural operations” from the definition of hazardous chemicals. EPCRA doesn’t define “routine agricultural operations,” so EPA states that it interprets the term to include regular and routine operations at farms, animal feeding operations, nurseries, other horticultural operations and aquaculture and a few examples of substances used in routine operations include animal waste stored on a farm and used as fertilizer, paint used for maintaining farm equipment, fuel used to operate machine or heat buildings and chemicals used for growing and breeding fish and plans for aquaculture. As a result of this EPA interpretation, most farms and operations do not have to report emissions under EPCRA. More information on EPA’s interpretation of EPCRA reporting for farms is here.
What should owners and operators of farms with animal wastes do now?
- Review the EPA’s interim guidance on CERCLA and EPCRA Reporting Requirements, available here.
- Determine if the operation may have reportable quantities of air emissions from hazardous substances such as ammonia or hydrogen sulfide. The EPA offers resources to assist farmers in estimating emission quantities, which depend upon the type and number of animals and type of housing and manure storage facilities. These resources are available here.
- A farm that will have reportable emissions that are continuous and stable should file an initial continuous release notification by November 15, 2017. A guide from the EPA for continuous release reporting is here. Make sure to understand future responsibilities under continuous release reporting.
- If not operating under continuous release reporting, immediately notify the National Response Center at National Response Center (NRC) at 1-800-424-8802 for any release of a hazardous substance that meets or exceeds the reportable quantity for that substance in a 24-hour period, other than releases from the normal application or handling of fertilizers or pesticides.
- Learn about conservation measures that can reduce air pollution emissions from agricultural operations in this guide from the EPA.
Note that the EPA is seeking comments and suggestions on the resources the agency is providing or should provide to assist farm owners and operators with meeting the new reporting obligations. Those who wish to comment should do so by November 24, 2017 by sending an e-mail to CERCLA103.firstname.lastname@example.org.
EPA reaches decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally rendered a decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters following several months of delay and two lawsuits filed to compel the EPA to make a decision. (For a background on impaired waters and the two lawsuits, check out our previous blog posts here and here.) On May 19, 2017, the EPA decided to accept the Ohio EPA’s proposed list of impaired waters for the State of Ohio. Ohio’s list does not include the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. However, the State of Michigan’s list of impaired waters previously approved by the EPA does include the open waters in its portion of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.
The EPA explained that the agency deferred to Ohio's judgment not to include the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie on the impaired waters list. "EPA recognizes the State's ongoing efforts to control nutrient pollution in the Western Basin of Lake Erie," stated Chris Korleski, EPA's Region 5 Water Division Director and previously Ohio's EPA Director. "EPA understands that Ohio EPA intends to evaluate options for developing objective criteria (e.g., microcystin or other metrics) for use in making decisions regarding the Western Basin for the 2018 list. EPA expects the development of appropriate metrics, and is committed to working with you on them."
For now, the EPA appears satisfied with Ohio's plan for addressing nutrient reductions in Lake Erie's Western Basin. It is possible, however, that additional lawsuits could be filed against the EPA in order to reconcile Ohio and Michigan's different designations of water in the same general area.
Read the EPA's Approval of Ohio's Submission of the State's Integrated Report with Respect to Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act here.
Groups sue EPA over lack of impaired waters decision
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and five other environmental and outdoor groups (Plaintiffs) sued the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit due to EPA’s failure to approve or disapprove the list of impaired waters submitted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) within the time limit required by law. The Plaintiffs are particularly concerned that the EPA’s lack of a decision on the impaired waters list may affect pollution in Lake Erie’s waters.
A background on impaired waters designation
In 1972, Congress made amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The result was what we know today as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The very first section of the CWA states: “[t]he objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” In order to meet that objective, the CWA sets forth “effluent limitations,” or in other words, the amount of pollution allowed to be discharged. Polluters have different effluent limitations dependent on a number of variables. The states are to “identify” the waters where the “effluent limitations [from certain polluters] are not stringent enough” to meet water quality standards. The specific polluters to be examined are: 1) point sources, and 2) public treatment works either in existence on July 1, 1977 or approved under the CWA before June 30, 1974. For reference, point sources are defined as “any discernable, 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.” Point sources are not “agricultural stormwater discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.”
Those waters that states identify as not having stringent enough effluent limitations for point sources and public treatment works are called “impaired waters.” Along with the identification of impaired waters, states must also put forth total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), or the amounts of each kind of pollutant allowed. The CWA in its entirety is available here.
A regulation promulgated by the EPA under CWA mandates that states submit the list of waters they determine to be impaired every two years. The list must include a description of the “pollutants causing impairment” and their total maximum daily loads (TMDLs). The same regulation requires the EPA “to approve or disapprove such listing and loadings not later than 30 days after the date of submission.”
On October 20, 2016, OEPA submitted its list of impaired waters in the Ohio Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report, available here . The list of impaired waters included parts of Lake Erie, namely the Lake Erie Central Basin Shoreline and the Lake Erie Islands Shoreline. Significantly, OEPA did not include the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie on its list. The EPA has not responded to Ohio’s list by approving or disproving its listings.
Michigan submitted its impaired waters list in November 2016 and the EPA approved the report on February 3, 2017. Michigan listed the entirety of the Lake Erie waters in the state’s jurisdiction as impaired. This would include Michigan’s share of open waters in the western basin of Lake Erie. Michigan’s report is here.
The current lawsuit
As discussed above, six environmental and outdoor groups based in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois sued the EPA and its national and Region 5 administrators for the lack of a decision on OEPA’s list of impaired waters. The EPA was required to make the decision within 30 days of October 20, 2016. The Plaintiffs gave the EPA prior warning of their intention to sue in a notice sent on December 19, 2016. Since then, the EPA still has not come to a decision about Ohio’s list of impaired waters.
The crux of this lawsuit is the difference between Ohio and Michigan’s listings of waters in the same general area—the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Michigan listed the basin as impaired and Ohio did not. The Plaintiffs argue that the “inaction” on the part of the EPA “allows pollution… to continue unabated” throughout Lake Erie. Implicit in the Plaintiffs’ argument is that it seems unlikely that the EPA would allow one state to designate their Lake Erie water as impaired while the other state does not since water does not necessarily stay within state boundaries. The Plaintiffs appear to anticipate that EPA, when forced to make a decision, will disapprove of Ohio’s listing. Consequently, TMDLs could be established for greater areas of the Lake and water quality would likely be improved for the use and enjoyment of the Plaintiffs and their members.
What would a disapproval of OEPA’s list mean for Ohio?
If the court compels EPA to make a decision and EPA decides that OEPA was wrong to exclude the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired, EPA regulations give the EPA the authority to take action within thirty days. EPA actions would include identifying the waters as impaired and instituting the allowable TMDLs necessary to implement applicable water quality standards. After a public comment period and potential revisions to EPA’s actions, it would be up to the state of Ohio to meet the EPA’s TMDLs for the impaired waters.
What would a listing as impaired mean for Ohio residents—individuals, farms, and companies? It would probably mean increased regulations, likely in the form of reduced allowable loads of pollutants from the point sources and public treatment works discussed above. Time, effort, and money might be necessary to comply with such changes. Regulations and TMDLs might affect more Ohioans than before, since OEPA designated parts of Lake Erie as impaired but not others.
On the flip side, increased regulation could mean better water quality in Lake Erie for drinking, sport, and other uses. For now, Ohioans and others who use Lake Erie’s waters or are located in areas that drain to the Lake will have to wait for the federal court to act on the lawsuit.
The full complaint in National Wildlife Federation v EPA is available here.