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By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Monday, April 29th, 2024

As April comes to a close, we bring you another edition of the Ag Law Harvest. This month’s harvest brings you laws and regulations from across the country regarding a national drinking water standard, the Endangered Species Act, Ag-Gag laws, noncompete agreements, and pollution. 

EPA Finalizes First-Ever PFAS Drinking Water Standards
Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced a final rule, issuing the “first-ever national, legally enforceable drinking water standard to protect communities from exposure to harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as ‘forever chemicals’”. The final rule sets legally enforceable maximum contaminant levels for six PFAS chemicals in public water systems. The EPA also announced nearly $1 billion in new funding to “help states and territories implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems and to help owners of private wells address PFAS contamination.” The EPA suggests that this final rule “will reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths, and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses.” 

Interior Deptartment Finalizes Rule to Strengthen Endangered Species Act
The Department of the Interior has announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These revisions aim to enhance participation in voluntary conservation programs by promoting native species conservation. They achieve this by clarifying and simplifying permitting processes under Section 10(a) of the ESA, encouraging greater involvement from resource managers and landowners in these voluntary initiatives. For more information about Section 10 of the ESA visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.

Kentucky Passes Ag-Gag Statute
On April 12, 2024, the Kentucky legislature overrode the governor’s veto to pass Senate Bill 16 into law. The new law, titled “An Act Relating to Agricultural Key Infrastructure Assets,” expands the definition of “key infrastructure assets” to include commercial food manufacturing or processing facilities, animal feeding operations, and concentrated animal feeding operations. It criminalizes trespassing on such properties with unmanned aircraft systems, recording devices, or photography equipment without the owner's consent. The first offense is a Class B misdemeanor with up to 90 days imprisonment and a $250 fine, while subsequent offenses are Class A misdemeanors with up to 12 months imprisonment and a $500 fine.

Federal Trade Commission Bans Non-Compete Agreements
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a final rule banning noncompete agreements and clauses nationwide. This move aims to promote competition by safeguarding workers’ freedom to change jobs, increasing innovation and the formation of new businesses. Under the FTC’s new rule, existing noncompetes for the vast majority of workers will no longer be enforceable after the rule’s effective date. However, existing noncompetes for senior executives – those earning more than $151,164 annually and in policy making positions – remain enforceable under the new rule. Employers will have to notify workers bound to an existing noncompete that the noncompete agreement will not be enforced against the worker in the future. The final rule will become effective 120 days after publication in the Federal Register.  

EPA Announces New Rules to Reduce Pollution from Fossil Fuel-Fired Power Plants 
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) unveiled a set of final rules designed to decrease pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants. These rules, developed under various laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, aim to protect communities from pollution and improve public health while maintaining reliable electricity supply. They are expected to substantially reduce climate, air, water, and land pollution from the power industry, aligning with the Biden-Harris Administration's goals of promoting public health, advancing environmental justice, and addressing climate change.

 

First page of U.S. EPA existing stocks order for dicamba products.
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, February 15th, 2024

A federal court decision last week vacated the registrations of dicamba products XtendiMax, Engenia, and Tavium for over-the-top applications on soybean and cotton crops, making the use of the products unlawful (see our February 12, 2024 blog post).  The decision raised immediate questions about whether the U.S. EPA would exercise its authority to allow producers and retailers to use "existing stocks" of dicamba products they had already purchased.  Yesterday, the U.S. EPA answered those questions by issuing an Existing Stocks Order that allows the sale and use of existing stocks of the products that were packaged, labeled, and released for shipment prior to the federal court decision on February 6, 2024 For Ohio, the EPA's order allows the sale and distribution of existing stocks until May 31, 2024 and the use of existing stocks until June 30, 2024.

Here is the EPA's order:

  1. Pursuant to FIFRA Section 6(a)(1), EPA hereby issues an existing stocks order for XtendiMax® with VaporGrip® Technology (EPA Reg. No. 264-1210), Engenia® Herbicide (EPA Reg. No. 7969-472), and A21472 Plus VaporGrip® Technology (Tavium® Plus VaporGrip® Technology) (EPA Reg. No. 100-1623). This order will remain in effect unless or until subsequent action is taken. The issuance of this order did not follow a public hearing. This is a final agency action, judicially reviewable under FIFRA § 16(a) (7 U.S.C. §136n). Any sale, distribution, or use of existing stocks of these products inconsistent with this order is prohibited.
  2. Existing Stocks. For purposes of this order, “existing stocks” means those stocks of previously registered pesticide products that are currently in the United States and were packaged, labeled, and released for shipment prior to February 6, 2024 (the effective date of the District of Arizona’s vacatur of the dicamba registrations). Pursuant to FIFRA section 6(a)(1), this order includes the following existing stocks provisions:

a.  Sale or Distribution by the Registrants. As of February 6, 2024, sale or distribution by the registrants of these products is prohibited, except for the
purposes of proper disposal or to facilitate lawful export.
b.  Sale or Distribution by Persons other than the Registrants. Persons other than the registrants, including but not limited to co-ops and commercial distributors, who are already in possession of these products as of February 6, 2024, may sell or distribute these products until the end date for sale and distribution of existing stocks identified in Table 1; except that such persons may distribute these products after the date identified in Table 1 solely for purposes of proper disposal, lawful export, or to facilitate return to the manufacturer.
c.  Distribution or Sale by Commercial Applicators. Notwithstanding paragraph 2.b, for the purpose of facilitating use no later than the relevant end date for use of existing stocks identified in Table 1, distribution or sale of existing stocks of these dicamba products that are in the possession of commercial applicators is permitted
until the relevant end date for use in Table 1.
d.  Use of Existing Stocks. As of the date of this order, use of XtendiMax, Engenia, and Tavium is permitted until the relevant date identified in Table 1, provided that such use of existing stocks is consistent in all respects with the previously approved labeling accompanying the product.

What happens next? 

The Existing Stocks Order addresses dicamba over-the-top applications for the current growing season, but it's not the end of the dicamba controversy.  One potential next step could come from the petitioners in the federal case that vacated the dicamba product registrations, Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA.  The petitioners could file a motion asking the Court to review the Existing Stocks Order--an action that took place in the previous dicamba cancellation case, National Family Farm Coaltion v. EPA (Monsanto).  The petitioners in that case unsuccessfully sought an Emergency Motion to enforce the vacatur and hold the EPA Administrator in contempt for issuing an Existing Stocks Order.  A second next step that may yet play out is an appeal of the recent federal decision by the EPA, which has 30 days from the February 6 decision date to file an appeal.  At least one thing is clear at this point:  the long-term future of dicamba over-the-top products will continue to exist in a state of uncertainty.

Read the full text of the EPA's Existing Stocks Order.

Field of soybeans
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, February 12th, 2024

A federal district court in Arizona has vacated the registrations for dicamba products XtendiMax, Engenia, and Tavium, finding that the U.S. EPA violated pesticide registration procedures when it approved the product registrations in 2020.  As a result of the decision in Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA, the dicamba products are no longer legally authorized for use and application in the U.S.  Although there will likely be appeal of the decision, the new ruling creates uncertainty over the use of dicamba products for the upcoming crop season.

History of the case

If the court’s ruling feels familiar, that’s because it is a repeat of a 2020 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in National Family Farm Coalition v. EPA (Monsanto).  In that case, the court vacated the first “conditional” dicamba product registrations granted by the EPA in 2018.  The court found that the EPA had “substantially understated” and failed to acknowledge the risks of dicamba’s volatility and its effects on non-users.  The EPA then cancelled the product registrations in June of 2020, but allowed producers to use “existing stocks” of already purchased products to apply the products until July 31, 2020.  The Ohio Department of Agriculture shortened that timeline in Ohio due to growing conditions within the state, prohibiting applications of dicamba after June 30, 2020.

Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta immediately revised the label application instructions and restrictions for their dicamba products and resubmitted their registration requests to the EPA. In October of 2020, the EPA granted the applications and issued “unconditional” five-year registrations for over-the-top applications (OTT) of the products on cotton and soybean crops.  The EPA did not provide a notice and opportunity for the public to submit comments before it made the registration decision. The National Family Farm Coalition, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety, and Center for Biological Diversity filed the current lawsuit, claiming that the EPA violated federal law by granting the unconditional registrations without a notice and comment period.

The court’s reasoning in this case

EPA’s error.  The primary basis for the court’s decision is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), Section 136a(c)(4), which contains the notice and comment requirement for registration of a “new use” of a pesticide or herbicide.  It states that the EPA:

“. . . shall publish in the Federal Register. . . a notice of each application for registration of any pesticide that contains any new active ingredient or if it would entail a changed use pattern. The notice shall provide for a period of 30 days in which any Federal agency or any other interested person may comment.”

FIFRA further states that a “new use” of a product means, in part, “any additional use pattern that would result in a significant increase in the level of exposure, or a change in the route of exposure, to the active ingredient of man or other organisms.”

The EPA took the position that it did not have to provide the FIFRA notice and a comment period because the 2020 registration requests were not applications for a “new use” since EPA had previously approved the products.  The court strongly disagreed, however, emphasizing the previous court decision that had vacated those registrations because the EPA had failed to fully consider the risks of the products.  The EPA’s conclusion that the 2020 registrations were not for a new use “is so implausible that the Court cannot ascribe it to be a mere difference in view,” the court stated.  Stakeholders who would be affected by the dicamba registrations should have had an opportunity to “meaningfully weigh in during the decision-making process before EPA concluded whether OTT dicamba has unreasonable adverse effects on the environment,” said the court.

Remedy for the error.  The court explained that upon finding an agency has violated federal law, the presumed remedy a court must grant is to vacate the agency’s action.  The law requires that only in limited circumstances, when equity requires it, should a court remand without vacating an agency decision.  There are two factors the law requires a court to review in determining the remedy:  the seriousness of the agency’s error and the disruptive consequences of vacating the agency’s decision.  The court’s next step was to review those two factors and determine whether it should remand the issue with or without vacating the dicamba registrations.

Examining the first factor, the court concluded that the EPA’s error was “very serious” because it was likely that, had the agency considered field studies, data, and other information that would have been submitted during the comment period, the EPA’s registration decision likely would have differed from the decision it made to grant the five-year unconditional registration.  The history of the dicamba registrations were important to the court, and the judge noted that there had not been a notice and comment period for stakeholders who were opposed to approving dicamba products since 2016, when the EPA considered the original registration.  The court reiterated a long list of field studies, incident reports, and data generated since 2016 that the agency could have considered had it provided a comment period.  Noting that the EPA was “highly confident that control measures would eliminate dicamba offsite movement to only a minimal effect,” the court pointed to years of incident reports on dicamba offsite movement and concluded:

“This Court believes hearing from all stakeholders is likely to change the OTT dicamba registrations at least from unconditional to conditional, with data gathering requirements reinstated. Hearing from non-users of OTT dicamba may change the EPA’s circular approach to assessing costs for risks from OTT dicamba offsite movement. Instead of simply concluding there is no risk and, therefore, no costs to these stakeholders, EPA is likely to include the costs to these stakeholders when balancing the risks and benefits for OTT dicamba. Accordingly, the Court finds the EPA’s procedural error to unconditionally issue the “new use” 2020 dicamba registration, without notice and comment, was serious.”

The court then examined the second factor, the disruptive consequences of vacating the agency’s decision. The court recognized the benefits of dicamba products to the agricultural industry and that growers, through no fault of their own, would be in the difficult position of finding legal herbicides to protect their crops if the dicamba registrations were vacated.  Nevertheless, the court agreed with the reasoning in the previous dicamba case, National Family Farm Coalition v. EPA (Monsanto), that the seriousness of the EPA’s failure to assess the risks and costs for non-users of dicamba warranted vacating the registration despite the disruptive consequences.

What happens next?

There are two issues to watch now in the wake of the court’s decision. First is whether the EPA will appeal the federal district court’s decision.  The appeal would go the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same appellate court that reviewed the decision in the first dicamba appeal, National Family Farm Coalition v. EPA (Monsanto).  If the EPA also requests a stay, the appeal would put the federal district court’s decision on hold.

If there is not an appeal, the second issue to watch for is how the EPA and state agencies will direct the use of existing stocks of dicamba products.  The EPA could use its authority to allow continued use of existing stocks of dicamba products until a certain date, as it did in the previous case.  If the EPA does issue an existing stocks order, states could also address the extent of existing stocks use within their borders, as Ohio did in the previous case.

Follow the Ohio Ag Law Blog for continued legal information about Center for Biological Diversity v. EPA and review the federal district court’s opinion through this link.  Ohio growers should also refer to information from OSU’s Weed Science Extension Specialist, Dr. Allyssa Essman, available through OSU’s C.O.R.N. newsletter.

 

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, July 07th, 2023

It was a long time coming, but the Ohio EPA has presented a final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report for the Western Basin of Lake Erie to the U.S. EPA.  The agency submitted the “Maumee Watershed Nutrient TMDL ” report on June 30, 2023.  This was the exact deadline agreed to in the Consent Decree that settled litigation against the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA over the lack of a TMDL for Lake Erie’s Western Basin. 

What is a TMDL?

A TMDL provides a framework for future decisions that affect water quality in waters designated as “impaired waters” that fail to meet water quality standards.  The Ohio EPA declared Western Lake Erie waters as “impaired” in 2018, and the TMDL is the plan for addressing shoreline and open water impairments in the basin.  According to the Ohio EPA, the TMDL report “identifies the links between the waterbody use impairment, sources of impairment, and the pollutant load reductions needed to meet water quality standards.”

How will it affect Ohio agriculture?

A major source of the impairment in the Lake Erie Western Basin is cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms caused by high phosphorus loads.  The report identifies many sources of phosphorus that contribute to the impairment, with the largest component being “nonpoint” sources that include row crop commercial fertilizers and manures.  “Point” sources of phosphorous sources include water treatment facilities; stormwater discharges; and home sewage treatment systems.  The TMDL calls for phosphorus load reductions in the Maumee watershed to remedy the lake’s impairment.  Agriculture would be affected by increased emphasis on management practices for agricultural fertilizers, manures, soils, and drainage. 

How does the TMDL address phosphorus reductions?

The TMDL embraces an “adaptive management” approach that involves developing strategies, establishing milestones, implementing strategies, monitoring environmental responses, evaluating progress, and adjusting strategies.  For row crops, the report focuses on management practices such as soil testing and developing a nutrient management plan.  It proposes other agricultural phosphorous reductions from soil erosion management, increasing cropping diversity through rotations and cover crops, reductions of phosphorus applications, edge-of-field management, two-stage ditch designs, and controlled drainage. The report points out that many of the proposed actions have already been underway on farms in the watershed for over a decade, and monitoring, evaluations, and adjustment strategies will continue the progress made to-date. Figure 50 in the report, below, highlights phosphorous reduction strategies.

What happens next?

The U.S. EPA now must review the TMDL and decide whether to approve or disapprove the report.  It has up to 90 days to do so, according to the Consent Decree.  If the U.S. EPA does not approve the TMDL report, it must then prepare a TMDL for the Western Basin. 

How to learn more

Read the Maumee Watershed Nutrient TMDL on the Ohio EPA website, which also includes a fact sheet, appendices, and a summary of responses to public comments on the draft TMDL.

Sunset over Western Lake Erie
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, May 18th, 2023

What is the key to resolving disagreements over water quality issues in Lake Erie?  Cooperation, according to the federal court judge overseeing a legal battle over Lake Erie. The judge, U.S. District Judge James G. Carr, recently approved a plan that is the result of cooperation between the U.S. EPA, State of Ohio, Lucas County Commissioners, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.  For almost six years, the parties have been in a legal battle over how to deal with water quality in Western Lake Erie.  But at the encouragement of the court, the parties developed and agreed to a Consent Decree to settle the case.  Judge Carr approved the Consent Decree on May 4, 2023.  Time will soon tell if the cooperation approach will satisfy the parties holding interests in Lake Erie’s water quality.

What led to the Consent Decree?

In the midst of growing concerns about harmful algal blooms and water quality in Western Lake Erie, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Lucas County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, claiming that the federal agency had failed its obligations to oversee Ohio’s duties to meet water quality standards under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The CWA requires states to identify waters that do not meet water quality standards and designate them as “impaired waters.”  Once it lists a water as impaired, the state must also rank which waters have the highest need for determining Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) that set maximum amounts of pollutants that may enter the water.  TMDLs provide a framework for future decisions that affect water quality in the impaired water.

Following a separate lawsuit that challenged Ohio EPA’s designation of some but not all waters in Western Lake Erie as impaired, Ohio EPA assigned impaired water status to all Western Lake Erie waters by 2018.  But Ohio identified the waters as a “low” TMDL priority and stated that it would address water quality the western basin through “alternative measures” rather than preparation of a TMDL. The U.S. EPA, charged with reviewing state actions for compliance with the CWA, approved Ohio’s designation.  The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Lucas County Board of Commissioners each filed lawsuits against the U.S. EPA for approving Ohio’s approach, and the two lawsuits were consolidated into the current case.  The State of Ohio, not an original party to the litigation, received the court’s permission to intervene as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Several years and many motions and hearings later, Judge Carr admonished both sides of the lawsuit for dragging the matter out in court and leaving Lake Erie’s water quality problem “largely unattended.”  In 2021, before considering separate summary judgment motions the parties had made, the Judge pointed out that no matter his decision, the other party would appeal it and continue the litigation and that “nothing is going to get done.”  Resolving the problems in Lake Erie would only happen if the U.S. EPA, the plaintiffs, and the State of Ohio would “work cooperatively towards accomplishing a meaningful outcome and resolution,” Judge Carr stated.  His resolution on the summary judgment motions would only “kick the can down the road for another two years, at least...” A better solution, said Judge Carr, would be for the parties to resolve the matter through settlement.

With the court’s oversight, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations for nearly two years.  They reached an agreement in 2022.  As required by law, the U.S. EPA filed the proposed agreement, or Consent Decree, in the Federal Register last November and sought public comments to the proposal.  The parties then filed a joint motion to the court, asking Judge Carr to approve the proposed Consent Decree. 

The Consent Decree

The Consent Decree outlines a timeline Ohio EPA must follow to create a TMDL designed to address nutrient and algae impairments for drinking water, aquatic life, and recreational uses by establishing pollutant limits for all Western Lake Erie waters. The agreement requires the plaintiffs to allow additional time for the U.S. EPA to step in and prepare a TMDL if Ohio fails in its efforts to do so.  The Consent Decree also sets up a status report schedule and a dispute resolution process and awards attorney fees and costs to the Plaintiffs.  The agreement does not address the legal sufficiency of the TMDL, and the plaintiffs still hold the right to challenge the legal sufficiency or adequacy of the TMDL. The Consent Decree will end upon performance of all obligations by all parties.

The following summarizes the steps of the agreed upon TMDL schedule.

Approval of the Consent Decree

Judge Carr’s role in reviewing the proposed agreement was to determine if it is “fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest.”  The parties’ submitted a joint motion in support of the Consent Decree that laid out their arguments as follows:

  1. The proposed agreement is fair because it was negotiated at length, in good faith, and in recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of each side.
  2. Because the proposed agreement addresses Defendant’s alleged violations by providing a schedule for developing a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, it is adequate and reasonable.
  3. The Consent Decree is in the public interest and furthers the goals of the Clean Water Act by providing for the timely development of a TMDL that will help “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” as intended by the Act. It also allows continued citizen rights to participate in the TMDL, does not alter existing regulations for TMDLs, and avoids significant time and expenses associated with ongoing litigation.

Judge Carr agreed with the parties’ arguments and approved the Consent Decree.  In doing so, he praised the work of U.S. District Judge Polster, who oversaw the settlement negotiations, the lawyers for each party, and the State of Ohio.  “Though the work that today’s agreement brings is but a first step, it is a step that has to be taken.  How many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing,” he stated.  “But there’s reason to hope that, in time, the Maumee River will no longer display, as it has for countless summers, a loathsome foul and slimy green surface as it flows through Toledo on its constant and irresistible course on to Lake Erie’s Western Basin.”

What’s next?

Implementation of the Consent Decree schedule is already underway.  The Ohio EPA issued a draft TMDL or “Nutrient Water Quality Improvement Plan for the Maumee River Watershed” on December 30, 2022, and is currently reviewing comments made during the public comment period that ended on March 8, 2023.  The agency appears to be on schedule for meeting the June 30 deadline for submitting the TMDL to the U.S. EPA for its review. Information on the Draft TMDL is available at https://epa.ohio.gov/divisions-and-offices/surface-water/reports-data/maumee-river-watershed.

But is continued cooperation on the TMDL for Western Lake Erie possible?  Both the plaintiffs in this case submitted comments on the draft TMDL, and both raised concerns about its “shortcomings.”  

“The TMDL just proposes to keep doing the same things that have already failed, focused on voluntary measures and incentive payments to producers,” stated the Environmental Law & Policy Center in its comments, available at https://elpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/ELPC-Maumee-TMDL-comments-FINAL.pdf

“It is critical that the draft TMDL not lack the necessary steps to reduce agriculture phosphorous runoff into Lake Erie and place limits on dissolved reactive phosphorous,” said Lucas County Commissioner Wozniak in comments summarized at https://co.lucas.oh.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1750.  “We shouldn’t be fooled into settling for half measures and voluntary practices any longer. We are talking about the health of our most valuable resource, and we must have a meaningful TMDL to protect it.”

While the spirit of cooperation encouraged by Judge James G. Carr is at play in the development of a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, whether that spirit will thrive in the debate over the content and future implementation of the TMDL is a critical question. In the words of Judge Carr, how many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing.  Let’s hope that more litigation isn’t one of those steps.

 

The Consent Decree is available through this link.

Judge Carr's Order on the Consent Decree is at this link.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, April 05th, 2023

The United States Supreme Court began its new term last October with the now famous wetlands case of Sackett v. U.S. EPAThe case is one in a long line of legal battles over how to define which waters are “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) that are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  We expected quiet waters for WOTUS as we awaited the Sackett decision. But we were wrong.

New EPA rule.  The U.S. EPA made a big splash on January 18, when the agency published a new WOTUS rule to define which waters are WOTUS.  Although the rule had been under consideration since the beginning of the Biden administration, many expected the EPA to hold off on finalizing the rule until after the Supreme Court’s Sackett ruling because that decision could affect the rule.  The EPA chose not to wait, and the new rule became effective on March 20, 2023. 

New litigation begins.  Not surprisingly, the new WOTUS rule set off a new wave of litigation.  A string of four federal lawsuits were filed in January and February of 2023 by many states and interest groups.  The cases contest the validity of the rule and ask for preliminary injunctions preventing implementation of the rule while the cases are pending.

Two cases, two different outcomes.  The Southern District of Texas made the first decision on the new litigation in Texas v. U.S. EPA, granting an injunction on March 19 for two of the lawsuits filed by Texas, Idaho, and the American Farm Bureau and other interest groups.  The injunction prevents the rule from going into effect in Texas and Idaho. The federal district court determined the plaintiffs would expend significant resources complying with the rule although the rule was unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, creating potential irreparable harm and justifying an injunction against the rule. The Kentucky district court recent an opposite decision on March 31 in the case filed by the State of Kentucky.  The Eastern District court in Kentucky v. U.S. EPA declined to issue Kentucky’s request for a preliminary injunction, concluding that because the EPA has not begun enforcing the rule in Kentucky, there is no impending injury that warrants an injunction.  In both the Kentucky and Texas cases, the courts declined to issue a nationwide injunction against the new WOTUS rule.

Another injunction decision to come. Twenty four states joined together to file West Virginia v. EPA, the fourth federal lawsuit against the new WOTUS rule.  Ohio is not one of the plaintiff states in the case, which challenges the rule and seeks injunctions in the states as well as a nationwide injunction.  We should see a decision on the injunction request soon from the federal district court in North Dakota.

There are waves in Congress, too.  Not satisfied to sit back and watch the battles over the new WOTUS rule,  Congress recently took action to void the rule.  Congress used its authority under the Congressional Review Act, a little-used federal law that allows Congress to invalidate an agency action.  The House passed a resolution to void the rule on March 9 by a margin of 227 to 198, and the Senate voted on March 29 with 53 for and 43 against nullifying the WOTUS rule.  President Biden has the power to veto the legislation, however.  Neither the House nor the Senate appear to hold the two-thirds majority necessary to override a Biden veto.  (UPDATE:  President Biden vetoed the resolution on April 6, 2023).

Back to SCOTUS.  And still, we circle back to the Sackett case and await the Supreme Court’s analysis of the proper test to use to define a “waters of the United States.”  How will the ruling affect the new WOTUS rule and its litigation?  Will Congress act on the Supreme Court’s ruling to establish a statutory definition for WOTUS that would preempt the EPA’s rule?  As we have learned, there are more WOTUS waves yet to come.  

 

Picture of Adams Lake, Ohio
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a big splash when it released its final rule for defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) on December 30. Immediate criticism and support for the new rule surfaced as many undertook the unenviable task of interpreting the rule’s 514 pages of text.  Perhaps some enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the latest development in WOTUS.  But how many responded with a bit of weariness, asking what this “new” rule really means for agriculture and, more importantly, does it really matter?

What does the new final WOTUS rule mean for ag?

There are several answers to this question.  The first and most practical answer is that the rule changes which waters are subject to federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Through its permit programs, the CWA aims to protect water quality by preventing discharges of pollutants, dredge, or fill into a water that fits within the rule’s definition of “waters of the United States.”  A water that falls into any of five categories now laid out in the new WOTUS rule is a “water of the United States” that will be subject to CWA permit requirements and regulations, once the rule is effective.  But the rule also contains exceptions and exclusions to CWA jurisdiction, and waters that fall into these categories won’t be subject to CWA regulation.

The categories, exceptions, and exclusions all attempt to draw lines around waterways that are at risk for pollution and dredge and fill activities and thus should be protected under the CWA.  It is the less “obvious” waterways, like wetlands and ephemeral streams, that create consternation and raise the eternal question:  when is a water sufficiently connected to an “obvious” water body, and thus at risk for harm, to warrant CWA regulation?  The new rule tries, once again, to answer this difficult question.  As it does so, it repeats many of the categories, exceptions, and exclusions that we’ve seen in previous WOTUS rules, but there are some changes and attempts at clarification.  For an explanation of the new rule’s categories, exceptions, and exclusions, see this summary of the rule by our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center.  Agricultural interests have reacted to the changes in the rule; see this article for those reactions.

A second and more skeptical answer to the question of what the rule really means for agriculture is that it modifies the landscape for legal challenges to WOTUS.  As history illustrates, the new WOTUS rule will be challenged as the agencies interpret and enforce the rule against agriculture and other regulated communities.  New rule, new arguments, new court decisions--it’s a cycle we’ve witnessed before.  And a legal challenge to the validity of the rule itself, not just to an application of the rule, is also likely. The court cases that arise from such challenges might help answer the question of what the rule really means for agriculture or might instead create more confusion and continued battles.

Does the new rule really matter?

If you’ve followed WOTUS recently, you may know that the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard an appeal in October by the Sacketts, landowners who were affected by an agency interpretation that subjected their property to CWA jurisdiction.  That challenge centered on whether the “significant nexus” test is an appropriate test for determining whether the wetlands on the Sackett property fall into the definition of “waters of the United States.” The new WOTUS rule contains a renewed EPA attempt to clarify the “significant nexus” test and also introduces a new “material influence” standard for smaller waters and wetlands.  As we await the SCOTUS decision, we must acknowledge that its outcome could require EPA to rewrite any parts of the rule, especially the significant nexus and material influence provisions, that conflict with the Court’s holding.

Due to the impending SCOTUS decision and potential legal challenges to the rule, the WOTUS rule might not even go into effect.  The rule cannot be effective until 60 days have passed from the date it is published in the Federal Register.  It has not yet been published in the Federal Register, so the 60-day time clock is not yet ticking.  There’s a slight possibility SCOTUS will rule before that effective date, and also a possibility that if the rule does become effective, immediate legal challenges will put the rule on hold.  In both situations, we have an answer to the question of what the rule means for ag:  possibly nothing.

WOTUS weariness

I have never experienced such exhaustion over a legal issue as I have with WOTUS.  That’s because we have yet to solve the problem despite a long, long, parade of court cases and revised rules.  We still await clarity to the definition of WOTUS and certainty on which waters should be subject to CWA.  Congress could take a shot at doing so, given that Congress enacted the CWA and established the very term, “waters of the United States.”  Yet Congress sits silent on the issue. 

For me, it is the overlooked questions, and the need to examine the big picture, that most contribute to WOTUS weariness.  Is the WOTUS battle effectively addressing water quality?  Is it time to admit that a fix to WOTUS might require a new approach?  Under the old adage of “check your premises,” perhaps we should examine the premise upon which WOTUS rests—waters that are “inside” the scope of the definition are similar, all under the same risks, and should all be regulated by CWA.  While the obvious and easily identifiable water bodies can benefit from WOTUS and CWA, should we quit trying to define those other waters and instead focus on different mechanisms that manage water quality risks to them?  Would we get further, faster, with a new approach?

The final question:  is there actual improvement in water quality that comes with yet another rule, another change, and more challenges to the scope of the definition of WOTUS?  The answer to that question, I fear, is no--but a focus on that question could be a way to overcome WOTUS weariness.

Read the new WOTUS rule from the EPA, and additional EPA resources about WOTUS.  More on the Sackett case is in this recent blog post.

American Burying Beetle
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, March 31st, 2022

When the U.S. EPA approved the seven-year renewal registration for Corteva’s Enlist One and Enlist Duo on January 12, 2022, it also prohibited use of the herbicide in 217 counties across the country.  Twelve Ohio counties were on that list, preventing farmers in Athens, Butler, Fairfield, Guernsey, Hamilton, Hocking, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Perry, Vinton, and Washington counties from using the herbicides.  Welcome news for those farmers came on Tuesday, when the EPA announced that it is removing the restricted use for all Ohio counties.

The prohibition against using Enlist Duo’s use was because Corteva did not submit its use in all U.S. counties in the reregistration, many of which had endangered species and critical habitat that could be impacted by the herbicides.  The twelve Ohio counties that were not submitted for use by Corteva are home to the American Burying Beetle, which is on the Endangered Species list.  But in February, Corteva submitted a label amendment that proposed use of Enlist One and Enlist Duo in 128 of the previously restricted counties, including Ohio’s twelve counties. 

Upon receiving Corteva’s amendment, federal law requires EPA to complete an “effects determination” to assess potential effects on the endangered species in the previously restricted counties.  The assessment included reviewing updated range maps for the endangered species and their habitats that were provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Range maps help identify the overlap between the American Burying Beetle’s location and growing areas for corn, soybeans, and cotton where Enlist might be applied.  Based on the maps, the agency determined that the beetle was not present in 10 of the previously restricted counties and had less than a 1% overlap with crop areas in another 118 counties.

EPA also examined whether there would be direct or indirect effects on other listed endangered species or habitat in those counties.  The black-footed ferret was the only specifies identified in field areas in the 128 counties, and fifteen other listed specifies and three critical habitats were determined to exist off of the field areas.  But the EPA found that the Enlist label restrictions would address any concerns with these additional species and habitats.

After completing its effects determination and review of the amendment, the EPA concluded that “the use of these products—with the existing label requirements in place to mitigate spray drift and pesticide runoff—will not likely jeopardize the American Burying Beetle or other listed species and their critical habitats in these counties.”  Similarly, EPA determined that six Minnesota counties that are home to the endangered Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake were also removed from the prohibited list and approved for Enlist use.

EPA noted the importance of following the label restrictions for the herbicides, particularly in areas where endangered species reside.  The new label approved by the EPA in January contains changes to the previous label.  According to OSU weed scientist Mark Loux, those changes include a revised application cutoff for soybeans, “through R1” that replaces “up to R2” on previous labels, and the addition of a slew of spray nozzles to the approved nozzle list.  Enlist users should take care to review these new provisions.  As required by EPA, Corteva provides educational tools on using Enlist, available at https://www.enlist.com/en/enlist-360-training.html.

If you’re interested in reading more about the EPA’s registration review on Enlist One and Enlist Duo, the agency’s docket on the registration is available at  https://www.regulations.gov/docket/EPA-HQ-OPP-2021-0957/document.  The amendment letter for the recent removal of prohibitions on certain counties is at https://www.regulations.gov/document/EPA-HQ-OPP-2021-0957-0020.

Turkey looking straight into camera.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Wednesday, November 24th, 2021

Did you know that female turkeys can lay a fertilized egg without mating?  This process is called parthenogenesis, a type of asexual reproduction that can also occur in other types of animals including invertebrates, fish, and lizards.  In turkeys, this process always produces a male chick.  The likelihood of an embryo from parthenogenesis surviving to chick-hood is small, but possible.  

In this edition of the Ag Law Harvest and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are thankful for the opportunity to present to you the newly proposed definition of “waters of the United States”, Kansas’s battle to protect agricultural facilities, and food labeling cases from across the country.  

EPA and Army Corps of Engineers propose rule to establish the definition of “waters of the United States.”  The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers announced proposed rule to return the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”) to the pre-2015 definition with a few updates to reflect Supreme Court decisions.  In 2020, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule went into effect and interpreted WOTUS to include: “(1) territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; (2) tributaries of such waters; (3) certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and (4) wetlands adjacent to other jurisdictional waters (other than jurisdictional wetlands).”  On January 20, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 13990 directing all executive agencies to review and address any federal regulations that went into effect during the previous administration. After reviewing the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule, the agencies determined that the rule is significantly reducing clean water protections.  The new rule proposed by the agencies seeks to interpret WOTUS to include: (1) traditional navigable waters; (2) interstate waters; (3) the territorial seas and their adjacent wetlands; (4) most impoundments of WOTUS; (5) tributaries to traditional navigable waters, interstate waters, the territorial seas, and impoundments, that meet either the relatively permanent standard of the significant nexus standard; (6) wetlands adjacent to impoundments and tributaries, that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard; and (7) “other waters” that meet either the relatively permanent standard or the significant nexus standard.  The agencies will be taking comment on the proposed rule for 60 days once the rule is published in the Federal Register.  

Kansas Attorney General asks Supreme Court to review Kansas “Ag Gag” Law.  Derek Schmidt, Attorney General of Kansas, has asked the United States Supreme Court to review the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act (the “Act”) which criminalizes the unauthorized access to agricultural facilities without consent of the owner of the facility with the intent to damage the business of the facility.  Under the Act, consent is not effective if it is “[i]nduced by force, fraud, deception, duress or threat.”  Earlier this year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Kansas law to be unconstitutional by violating the free speech clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and prohibited Kansas from enforcing the Act.  Now, Derek Schmidt has petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Kansas law arguing that the Act does not violate the First Amendment because the Act regulates conduct not speech.  The Attorney General goes on to argue that even if trespass by deception were to be considered a form of speech, it is a form of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.  The Attorney General reasoned that the Act protects a private property owner’s right to exclude and that the First Amendment does not provide a license to violate a person’s property rights.   

Oklahoma’s meat labeling law on trial.  Earlier this month, the Plant Based Foods Association and the Tofurky Company (“Plaintiffs”) filed an amended complaint challenging Oklahoma’s Meat Consumer Protection Act (the “Act”) alleging that the Act violates the dormant commerce clause, the due process clause, and the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution.  Plaintiffs allege that the Oklahoma law “institutes a protectionist trade barrier” that is contrary to and preempted by federal law.  According to Plaintiffs, the Act “forbids plant-based meat producers from using meat terms unless they include a disclaimer on their product labels in the same type size and prominence to the ‘name of the product’ that their plant-based products are not actually meat derived from animals.”  Plaintiffs argue that the Oklahoma law would require plant-based meat producers to develop Oklahoma specific labels or abandon the Oklahoma market which is essentially interfering with interstate commerce and in violation of established federal law. This case is set for trial in 2022.  But, this is not the first time the Oklahoma law has been challenged on constitutional grounds.  Plant Based Foods Association and Upton’s Naturals Company also filed suit alleging the Oklahoma law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.  However, a Federal District Court in Oklahoma denied an injunction to prevent Oklahoma from enforcing the law.  The court found that the disclosure requirement in the Act is reasonably related to Oklahoma’s interest in preventing the confusion or deception of consumers.  The court reasoned that the commercial speech at issue could potentially be misleading to reasonable consumer.  The court argued that “the possibility of deception flowing from the use of meat-related terms for the plant-based products is self-evident from the natural inference a consumer would draw from the meat-related terms used.”  This not the end of the battle for the Oklahoma law, there will likely be appeals to higher courts to help settle the dispute. 

Pepperidge Farm sued over “Golden Butter” cracker label.  Hawa Kamara decided to file a lawsuit against Pepperidge Farm, Inc. after purchasing “Golden Butter” crackers at a local Target store in New York. According to the ingredients list attached to Kamara’s complaint, the crackers were made with butter but also included vegetable oils.  Kamara asserted that the presence of vegetable oils makes the “Golden Butter” packaging misleading and/or deceptive because a reasonable consumer would conclude the crackers were “all or predominantly made with butter.”  A Federal District Court in New York, however, did not find the packaging misleading or deceptive.  The court reasoned that “the packaging accurately indicated that the product contained butter, and the ingredients list confirmed that butter predominated over other oils and fats.”  Further, the court argued that a reasonable consumer could believe the “Golden Butter” labeling described the product’s flavor and not the ingredient proportions.  Ultimately, the court decided to dismiss the case against Pepperidge Farm because Kamara’s complaint did not plausibly allege that the “Golden Butter” packaging materially misrepresented the ingredients in the crackers.  

 

Thank you for reading and we hope that everyone has a happy and safe Thanksgiving!! 

Pistol shrimp on reddish orange coral.
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Tuesday, September 07th, 2021

Did you know there is a sea creature capable of producing bubbles that are louder than a gun and hotter than lava?  Pistol shrimp, also known as snapping shrimp, are the super-powered creatures under the sea that no one talks about.  These bite-sized crustaceans have a special claw that allows them to form the deadly bubble to shoot at unsuspecting victims or enemies.  The sound of the pop of the bubble has been measured at 218 decibels, which is louder than a speeding bullet, and the heat generated by the bubble has been measured to reach almost 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making the bubble four-times hotter than lava.  Like the pistol shrimp, we have brought you the heat in this edition of the Ag Law Harvest.  

This Ag Law Harvest brings you agricultural and resource issues from across the country that have created their own noise, including animal liability laws, the reversal of relaxed environmental regulations, and requiring federal agencies to consider the impact of future agency activities on the environment. 

Farmers and ranchers begin to enjoy new protections under Texas animal liability laws. Texas House Bill 365, which expands protections under Texas’ Farm Animal Liability Act (“FALA”), went into effect on September 1, 2021.  House Bill 365 was passed in response to a 2020 Texas Supreme Court ruling which found that farmers and ranchers were not protected under FALA and could be liable for injuries that occur on working farms and ranches.  The new law prevents an injured individual from holding a farmer or rancher liable for their injuries, so long as the injuries are a result of the inherent risks of being involved in routine/customary activities on a farm or ranch.   

Federal Court revokes Trump Navigable Waters Protection Rule. The U.S. District Court in Arizona recently ruled that the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule (“NWPR”) must be vacated because the rule contains serious errors and the Trump Administration’s rule could do more harm than good to the nation’s waters if left alone.  Opponents of the NWPR argued that rule disregards established science and the advice of the EPA’s own experts in order to redefine the phrase “waters of the United States.”  Specifically, opponents to the Trump Administration’s rule voiced their concern that the NWPR failed to take into consideration the effect ephemeral waters would have on traditional navigable waters. And the Court agreed.  The Court found that the NWPR must be vacated because the rule “could result in possible environmental harm.”  The Court also reasoned that because the EPA is likely to alter the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Biden Administration, the NWPR should not remain in place.  Proponents of the NWPR claim that the Court’s ruling creates uncertainty for farmers and ranchers across the country.  

EPA revokes Minnesota attempts to relax feedlot regulations. Earlier this year, Minnesota passed a law that relaxed the requirements to obtain a “Feedlot General Permit.”  The Feedlot General Permit is usually only for Minnesota’s largest feedlots, some 1,200 farms.  The permits are required under federal clean water laws but enforced by the state.  Prior to the law being passed, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency required those farmers that applied manure during the first two weeks of October to implement one of four approved nitrogen management practices.  However, Minnesota lawmakers wanted to relax those regulations by prohibiting regulatory authorities from requiring farmers to take new steps to limit nitrogen runoff during October.  But, the EPA “vetoed” Minnesota’s relaxed regulations, which it can do when a state’s law conflicts with a federal law or regulation.  The EPA sent a letter notifying Minnesota that the relaxed regulations would be inconsistent with the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) and would result in an improper modification to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s authority to administer the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”), which administers the feedlot permits.  Proponents of the new Minnesota law claimed that the existing permits were not flexible enough and that regulatory authorities focused on an arbitrary calendar date rather than focusing on natural conditions when limiting a farmer’s ability to spread manure.  Opponents to Minnesota’s law argue that the EPA did the right thing by using “common sense improvements to prevent manure runoff.” 

Department of Homeland Security found to have violated environmental regulations for its border-enforcement activity.  The Center for Biological Diversity and U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva (the “Plaintiffs”) filed suit in federal court claiming that the Department of Homeland Security and its agency, Customs and Border Protection, (the “Defendants”) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants failed to update their programmatic environmental analysis for border-enforcement activity since 2001, as required by NEPA, and that Defendants failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) about the impacts of border-enforcement activity on threatened or endangered species, as required by the ESA.  In its opinion, the U.S. District Court of Arizona ruled that the Defendants did violate NEPA but not the ESA.  The Court found that NEPA has two primary goals: (1) require every federal agency to consider the environmental impact of the agency’s actions; and (2) require the federal agency to inform the public that it has considered the environmental impact.  NEPA also requires a federal agency to supplement its environmental impact statement if there is ongoing action being taken by the federal agency.  The Defendants claimed they did not violate NEPA because they conducted and provided site-specific or project-specific environmental assessments.  However, the Court ruled that although the Defendants did conduct project-specific analysis, they are required to supplement their environmental impact statement for the activity/program, as a whole, unless they legally opt out of the supplementation, which Defendants did not do until 2019.  Therefore, the Court found the Defendants did violate NEPA prior to 2019.  The Court also ruled that the ESA does not require federal agencies to consult with the FWS on a broad and continuing basis.  The Court felt that the Defendants had met any requirements under the ESA by meeting with the FWS for any site-specific or project-specific analysis.  Although the Court found that Defendants had violated NEPA, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs had waited too long to bring the lawsuit and that no remedy was available to Plaintiffs for the previous procedural violations of NEPA.  

USDA announces changes to CFAP 2. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency announced changes to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 (“CFAP 2”).  As a result of the changes, contract poultry, egg, and livestock producers, and producers of “sales-based commodities” – mostly specialty crops – can modify existing or file new applications by October 12, 2021, using either 2018 or 2019 to measure lost revenue in 2020.  The changes were published on August 27, 2021, and can be found here.

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