EPA

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, June 11th, 2020

The dicamba roller coaster ride continues today, with a statement issued by the Ohio Department of Agriculture clarifying that the use of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan dicamba-based products in Ohio will end as of June 30, 2020.  Even though the US EPA has issued an order allowing continued use of the products until July 31, 2020, use in Ohio must end on June 30 because the Ohio registrations for the three dicamba-based products expire on that day.

As we’ve explained in our previous blog posts here and here, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the registration of the dicamba products on June 3, 2020.  In doing so, the court stated that the EPA had failed to perform a proper analysis of the risks and resulting costs of the products.  According to the court, EPA had substantially understated the amount of acreage damaged by dicamba and the extent of such damage, as well as complaints made to state agriculture departments.  The court determined that EPA had also entirely failed to acknowledge other risks, such as the risk of noncompliance with complex label restrictions, economic risks from anti-competition impacts created by the products, and the social costs to farm communities caused by dicamba versus non-dicamba users.  Rather than allowing the EPA to reconsider the registrations, the court vacated the product registrations altogether.

The EPA issued a Cancellation Order for the three products on June 8, stating that distribution or sale by the registrants is prohibited as of June 3, 2020.  But the agency also decided to examine the issue on the minds of many farmers:  what to do with the products.  Applying its “existing stocks” policy, the EPA examined six factors to help it determine how to deal with stocks of the product that are in the hands of dealers, commercial applicators, and farmers.  The EPA concluded that those factors weighed heavily in favor of allowing the end users to use the products in their possession, but that use must occur no later than July 31, 2020 and that any use inconsistent with the previous label restrictions is prohibited.

Despite the EPA’s Cancellation Order, however, the Ohio Department of Agriculture is the final arbiter of the registration and use of pesticides and herbicides within Ohio.  ODA patiently waited for the EPA to act on the Ninth Circuit’s ruling before issuing its guidance for Ohio users of the dicamba products.  In its guidance released today, ODA stated that:

  • After careful evaluation of the court’s ruling, US EPA’s Final Cancellation Order, and the Ohio Revised Code and Administrative Code, as of July 1, 2020, these products will no longer be registered or available for use in Ohio unless otherwise ordered by the courts.
  • While use of already purchased product is permitted in Ohio until June 30, further distribution or sale of the products is illegal, except for ensuring proper disposal or return to the registrant.
  • Application of existing stocks inconsistent with the previously approved labeling accompanying the product is prohibited.

But the roller coaster ride doesn’t necessarily end there.  Several dangling issues for dicamba-based product use remain:

  • We’re still waiting to see whether the plaintiffs who challenged the registrations (the National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, and Pesticide Action Network North America) will also challenge the EPA’s Cancellation Order and its decision to allow continued use of the products, and will request immediate discontinuance of such uses. 
  • Bayer Crop Science, as an intervenor in the Ninth Circuit case, could still appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision, as could the EPA. 
  • All of these orders add complexity to the issue of liability for dicamba damage.  That issue has already become quite controversial, often pitting farmer against farmer and requiring the applicator or damaged party to prove adherence to or violation of the complicated label restrictions.  But the Ninth Circuit’s attention to the risks of adverse impacts from the products raises additional questions about whether an applicator who chooses to use the products is knowingly assuming a higher risk, and whether a liability insurance provider will cover that risk.  For this reason, growers may want to have a frank discussion with their liability insurance providers about coverage for dicamba drift.

The dicamba roller coaster ride will surely continue, and we’ll keep you updated on the next development. 

Read the ODA’s Official Statement Regarding the Use of Over-the-Top Dicamba Products here.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, June 09th, 2020

When we explained in our last blog post the recent Court of Appeals decision that vacated the registration of three dicamba-based products, we mentioned that one possibility for answering the “what happens now” question was for the EPA to issue a cancellation order that would allow end users to use existing stocks of the products.  That’s exactly what happened yesterday, when the US EPA made a final order that cancels the registrations of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan but allows for movement and use of the products.  Here’s a summary of the agency’s order.

Authority to issue the cancellation order

After reviewing the background of the dicamba product registrations vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week for lack of “substantial evidence” supporting the registrations, the EPA stated that it was relying upon the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to establish provisions for the disposition of existing stocks of registrations that are found to be invalid.   “The Administrator may permit the continued sale and use of existing stocks of a pesticide whose registration is suspended or canceled under [sections 3, 4 or 6 of FIFRA] to such extent, under such conditions, and for such uses as the Administrator determines that such sale or use is not inconsistent with the purposes of [FIFRA]” stated the agency. 

The EPA noted that FIFRA does not prohibit the use of unregistered pesticides, but only prohibits the sale and distribution of unregistered pesticides.  The agency noted that without its action, end users holding stocks of the products aren’t prevented from using the stocks without following the now voided label directions and restrictions.  And the agency pointed to a similar action it took after a 2015 court order that vacated the registration of sulfoxaflor and a 2010 court decision that vacated the registration of spirotetramat.  In both cases, the EPA utilized a cancellation order to establish terms and conditions for the disposition of existing stocks of the products.

Existing Stocks Determination

Back in 1991, the EPA established an “existing stocks policy” to help the agency assess how to treat existing stocks of cancelled pesticides, both when no significant risk concerns have been identified and when there are significant risk concerns for a cancelled product.  The agency noted that it considered the six factors outlined in the policy for considering significant risk concerns associated with a cancelled pesticide and reached the conclusion that “distribution and use in certain narrow circumstances is supported.”  The six factors the agency considered in determining what to do with the existing stocks of dicamba products are:

  1.  Quantities of existing stocks at each level of the channels of trade

The agency noted that due to the current timing of the growing season, significant existing stocks are present in the possession of end users and throughout the channels of trade.  Stating that it couldn’t determine the exact quantities of existing stocks at each level of the channels of trade, the EPA estimates that “approximately 4 million gallons could be in the channels of trade.”

  1.  Risks resulting from the use of the existing stocks

Again concluding that because the product registrations were vacated and the labels therefore voided, end users were not legally bound to follow label restrictions if using the dicamba products.  The agency concluded that such non-label uses would have greater potential for adverse effects than if the agency issued an order allowing and regulating the use of the existing stocks.  Such an order is imperative, said the agency, to ensure that any use of the products would be consistent with previously approved labeling and could be enforced in order to prevent unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.  Surprisingly, the EPA gave little attention to the volatility concerns raised by the Ninth Circuit in its decision last week, and evidence the court pointed to in that case that suggested that even applications by those who carefully followed the label restrictions were subject to drift and damage.

  1. The benefits resulting from the use of existing stocks

Capitalizing on the unfortunate timing of the Ninth Circuit’s vacation of the pesticide in regards to immediate needs for the current growing season, the agency concluded that “the benefits resulting from the use of the products are considerable and well established, particularly for this growing season.”  The EPA reiterated many of the numerous communications it had received stating how essential the over-the-top products are, especially with the growing season underway. It also concluded that allowing non-over-the-top uses would result in substantially greater benefits to users and society than would disposal of the products.

  1. The financial expenditures users and others have already spent on existing stocks

Echoing the concerns of many farmers and again pointing to the current growing season, the agency concluded that “the costs to farmers are not limited to their existing stocks of these dicamba products, but include other sunk costs made in expectation of the availability of these products (seed purchase, tilling, planting, etc.) as well as the lost opportunity to switch to a different crop or to another herbicide or weed management method.”

  1. The risks and costs of disposal or alternative disposition of the stocks

The EPA concluded that disposal of the existing stocks of dicamba products would incur substantial costs for all and for stock already in the hands of end users, “may be neither feasible nor advisable.”  Additionally, the agency pointed to disposal or return of opened containers which would have high risks of spillage and increased expenses for proper disposal.

  1. The practicality of implementing restrictions on distribution, sale, or use of the existing stocks

Another option available to the agency under FIFRA would be to issue individual stop sale, use and removal orders to all end users holding dicamba products, but the EPA concluded that such an action would be unwarranted under the present facts because tracking the existing stocks would be burdensome, inaccurate and impractical and that “hard-pressed farmers who have made large investments in their existing stocks may be uncooperative with a cancellation order that requires disposal.” 

Final Order

After weighing the six factors above, the EPA concluded that the six factors weigh heavily in support of allowing end users to use existing stocks of the dicamba products in their possession.   However, the agency imposed a July 31 , 2020 cut-off date for use of existing stocks in order to “further reduce the potential for adverse effects.”  Here are the final orders the agency made for distributed, sale and use of the products:

  1. Distribution or sale by the registrant.  Distribution or sale by the registrant of all existing stocks of the products listed below is prohibited effective as of the time of the order on June 3, except for distribution for the purposes of proper disposal.
  2. Distribution or sale by persons other than the registrant.  Distribution or sale of existing stocks of the products listed below that are already in the possession of persons other than the registrant is permitted only for the purposes of proper disposal or to facilitate return to the registrant or a registered establishment under contract with the registrant, unless otherwise allowed below.
  3. Distribution or sale by commercial applicators.  For the purpose of facilitating use no later than July 31, 2020, distribution or sale of existing stocks of products listed below that are in the possession of commercial applicators is permitted.
  4. Use.  Use of existing stocks of products inconsistent in any respect with the previously-approved labeling accompanying the product is prohibited.  All use is prohibited after July 31, 2020.

Now what? 

While the manufacturers of XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan are prohibited from selling and distributing their products effective as of June 3, 2020, the EPA’s cancellation order allows others to return, dispose of, or use the products according to the previous label restrictions and no later than July 31, 2020.  But a few other factors come into play:

  • Some states have already taken actions to restrict the use of the dicamba products within their states, which is within a state’s authority.  Ohio has not done so, and instead has stated that it has been awaiting US EPA guidance on the legal status of the products and will communicate options for farmers afterwards.  This means that users in Ohio should keep a close eye on the Ohio Department of Agriculture to see if it will go along with the US EPA’s guidance or direct otherwise.
  • A cancellation order issued by the EPA is a final agency action that is subject to appeal, so we might see an immediate of the cancellation order and a request to stay the order pending appeal.  Such an appeal could challenge whether the EPA has the authority to regulate existing stocks of the products and whether the agency’s analysis sufficiently addressed the risks of adverse impacts from continued use.

As seems often to be the case with dicamba, there’s a mixed sense of drama and dread with what lies ahead.  We’ll be sure to keep you posted on the next legal news for dicamba.

Read the US EPA’s cancellation order for XtendiMax, Engenia, and FeXapan here.

Posted In: Biotechnology, Crop Issues, Environmental
Tags: dicamba, FIFRA, EPA
Comments: 0
By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

Even with most of the country shut down, the U.S. EPA and the Supreme Court last week released an important rulemaking and a decision, respectively, regarding how parts of the Clean Water Act will be interpreted going forward.  On April 21, 2020, the EPA and the Department of the Army published the Trump administration’s final rule on the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Then, on April 23, the Supreme Court released its long awaited opinion determining whether or not pollutants from a point source, which are released and then carried by groundwater into a navigable water, must be permitted under the CWA. 

Trump’s new WOTUS

If you recall, we explained this final rule in January when the draft version was released.  Basically, the Trump administration wanted to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s 2015 WOTUS rule (explained here) because the administration felt that it was overreaching in the waters it protected.  The Trump administration did repeal the 2015 rule, and replaced it with the old 1986/1988 version of the WOTUS rule while they worked on the new version.  (See an explanation of the 1986/1988 language here.)

So what is included in the administration’s new definition? The following are defined as WOTUS, and therefore subject to the CWA under the new rule:

  • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  •  Tributaries;
  •   Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
  •  Adjacent wetlands.

Importantly, the new rule also includes an extensive list of what waters are not WOTUS, and therefore will not be protected by the CWA:

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  •  Ephemeral (caused by precipitation) features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
  • Diffuse stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
  •  Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
  •  Prior converted cropland;
  •  Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  •  Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
  • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
  • Waste treatment systems.

Currently, the 1986/1988 rules are the law of the land until this new rule goes into effect on June 22, 2020.  While this is the so-called “final” rule, chances are that it will be anything but final.  Like Obama’s 2015 rule, this new 2020 rule will probably be subject to lawsuits, this time from environmental groups and some state governments.  If you want to know more about WOTUS, our colleagues at the National Ag Law Center have created a very helpful timeline that explains all the different definitions of waters of the United States. 

U.S. Supreme Court determines the scope of a “point source”

The CWA requires the polluter to obtain a permit from the EPA if pollutants are being discharged from a point source into navigable waters.  Under the CWA, “point source means any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” The term “navigable waters” is defined as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.”

In County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund et. al., the United States Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether water treated by the County of Maui, which is pumped into the ground water and then travels about half a mile before it goes into the Pacific Ocean, requires a point source permit from the EPA.  Ultimately, in a 6-3 majority led by Justice Breyer, the court decided that yes, in this case, a permit would be required.  However, that does not mean that every conveyance through ground water will have the same outcome. 

So, how did the court come to this conclusion?  First, Justice Breyer examined the meaning of the word “from” in the CWA.  Remember that the definition of a point source “means any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance…from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” On one hand, Breyer says that the Ninth Circuit’s definition of “from” was too broad, and on the other, he says that Maui’s definition was too narrow.  The Ninth Circuit adopted a “fairly traceable” approach, meaning that permits would be required for any pollutant that is “fairly traceable” back to a point source.  Breyer and the majority say that the Ninth Circuit took it too far, because then any pollutant that travelled for years and years or many miles could be considered to be “from” a point source.  Maui County argued that “if at least one nonpoint source” is “between the point source and the navigable water,” then no permit is necessary under the CWA.  The majority felt this was too narrow, because then every time a pollutant was moved along to a navigable water by a little bit of rainwater or a small stretch of groundwater, the polluter would be free to pollute without a permit. In other words, there would be a huge loophole in the statute—because the polluter or “pipe’s owner, seeking to avoid the permit requirement,” could “simply move the pipe back, perhaps only a few yards, so that the pollution must travel through at least some groundwater before reaching the sea.” What is more, Breyer cites congressional actions and history to interpret that Congress did not mean to make the statute as broad as the Ninth Circuit found it to be, nor as narrow as Maui County and the EPA suggest. 

If the majority determined that one side read the statute too liberally and one too narrowly, then in what situations are point source permits required? Well, the court takes a kind of “we know it when we see it” approach.  The court says that a permit is required “when there is a direct discharge from a point source into navigable waters or when there is a functional equivalent of a direct discharge.” The court further explains this language saying that a “functional equivalent” happens when pollutants reach the “same result through roughly similar means.”  The court then provides some examples. For instance, a permit is obviously needed if a pipe ends just a couple of feet from a navigable water, and the pollutants then travel underground or across the land to the navigable water.  However, “[i]f the pipe ends 50 miles from navigable waters,” the pollutants would travel through a long stretch of groundwater, mixing with other pollutants, and taking years to reach the navigable waters. In this situation, the court says a permit would likely not be required.  Finally, Breyer lists relevant factors to consider when determining whether a permit is required:

  • Transit time,
  • Distance traveled,
  • The nature of the material through which the pollutant travels,
  • The extent to which the pollutant is diluted or chemically changed as it travels,
  • The amount of pollutant entering the navigable waters relative to the amount of the pollutant that leaves the point source,
  • The manner by or area in which the pollutant enters the navigable waters, and
  •  The degree to which the pollution (at that point) has maintained its specific identity. 

Note that other factors could apply.  In addition, the court says that time and distance will often be the most important factors, but not always.  In the future, the EPA and lower courts will use this guidance to determine whether or not a point source permit is required.

Two major actions took place last week that will guide how the CWA is carried out going forward.   Trump’s WOTUS rule could be taken down by lawsuits or replaced by the next administration, and the Supreme Court’s ruling may be further clarified by future decisions. As of today, though, these are the guidelines for implementing the CWA. 

By: Ellen Essman, Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

Hello, readers! We hope you are all staying safe and healthy. Understandably, news related to agricultural law seems to have slowed down a little bit over the last few weeks as both the federal and state governments have focused mainly on addressing the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak.  That being said, there have been a few notable ag law developments you might be interested in.

Federal government extends the tax deadline.  The IRS announced on March 21 that the deadline for filing or paying 2019 federal income taxes will be extended to July 15, 2020. 

Ohio Coronavirus Legislation. The Ohio General Assembly quickly passed House Bill 197 on Wednesday March 25, 2020.  HB 197 originally just involved changes to tax laws, but amendments were added to address the current situation.  Amendments that made it into the final bill include provisions for education—from allowing school districts to use distance learning to make up for instruction time, to waiving state testing.  Other important amendments make it easier to receive unemployment, move the state tax filing deadline to July 15, extend absentee voting, allow recently graduated nurses to obtain temporary licenses, etc. Of particular note to those involved in agriculture, HB 197 extends the deadlines to renew licenses issued by state agencies and political subdivisions.  If you have a state license that is set to expire, you will have 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted to renew the license.  HB 197 is available here. A list of all the amendments related to COVID-19 is available here.

Proposed changes to hunting and fishing permits in Ohio. In non-COVID news, Ohio House Bill 559 was introduced on March 18.  HB 559 would allow grandchildren to hunt or fish on their grandparents’ land without obtaining licenses or permits.  In addition, the bill would give free hunting and fishing licenses or permits to partially disabled veterans.  You can get information on the bill here

EPA simplifies approach to pesticides and endangered species. Earlier this month, the U.S. EPA released its “revised method” for determining whether pesticides should be registered for use.  Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies must consider whether an action (in this case, registration of a pesticide) will negatively impact federally listed endangered species. EPA is authorized to make decisions involving pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The revised method consists of a three-step process.  First, EPA will consider whether use of the pesticide “may affect” or conversely, have no effect on the listed species. If no effect is found, EPA can register the pesticide.  On the other hand, if EPA finds that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, it must examine whether the pesticide is “likely to adversely affect” the species. In this second step, if EPA decides that the pesticide may affect the endangered species, but is not “likely to adversely affect” the species, then the agency may register the pesticide with the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  Conversely, if EPA finds that the pesticide is likely to adversely affect the species, it must move on to step three, where it must work with FWS or NMFS to more thoroughly examine whether an adverse effect will “jeopardize” the species’ existence or “destroy or adversely modify its designated critical habitat.”  The revised method is meant to simplify, streamline, and add clarity to EPA’s decision-making. 

EPA publishes rule on cyazofamid tolerances. Continuing the EPA/pesticide theme, on March 18, EPA released the final rule for tolerances for residues of the fungicide cyazofamid in or on commodities including certain leafy greens, ginseng, and turnips. 

Administration backs off RFS.  In our last edition of the Ag Law Harvest, we mentioned that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had handed a win to biofuels groups by deciding that EPA did not have the authority to grant three waivers to two small refineries in 2017. By granting the waivers, the EPA allowed the refineries to ignore the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and not incorporate biofuels in with their oil-based fuels. The Tenth Circuit decision overturned this action. The Trump administration has long defended EPA’s action, so that’s why it’s so surprising that the administration did not appeal the court’s decision by the March 25 deadline. 

Right to Farm statute protects contract hog operation.  If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may recall that many nuisance lawsuits have been filed regarding large hog operations in North Carolina. In Lewis v. Murphy Brown, LLC, plaintiff Paul Lewis, who lives near a farm where some of Murphy Brown’s hogs are raised, sued the company for nuisance and negligence, claiming that the defendant’s hogs made it impossible for him to enjoy the outdoors and caused him to suffer from several health issues. Murphy Brown moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the nuisance claim should be disqualified under North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act, and that the negligence claim should be barred by the statute of limitations.  The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina made quick work of the negligence claim, agreeing with Murphy Brown that the statute of limitations had passed.  North Carolina’s Right to Farm Act requires a plaintiff to show all of the following: that he is the legal possessor of the real property affected by the nuisance, that the real property is located within one-half mile of the source of the activity, and that the action is filed within one year of the establishment of the agricultural operation or within one year of the operation undergoing a fundamental change.  Since the operation was established in 1995 and the suit was not brought until 2019, and no fundamental change occurred, the court determined that Lewis’s claim was barred by the Right to Farm Act.  Since neither negligence or nuisance was found, the court agreed with Murphy Brown and dismissed the case. 

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

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

What is (and isn’t) WOTUS now?

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

  • The territorial seas, and waters which are currently used, or were used in the past, or may be susceptible to use in interstate or foreign commerce, including waters which are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide;
  •  Tributaries;
  •   Lakes and ponds, and impoundments of jurisdictional waters; and
  •  Adjacent wetlands.

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

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

  • Waters or water features that are not identified in the definition of WOTUS, above;
  • Groundwater, including groundwater drained through subsurface drainage systems;
  •  Ephemeral features, including ephemeral streams, swales, gullies, rills, and pools;
  • Diffuse stormwater run-off and directional sheet flow over upland;
  •  Ditches that are not territorial seas, waters used in foreign commerce, or tributaries, and those portions of ditches constructed in some adjacent wetlands;
  •  Prior converted cropland;
  •  Artificially irrigated areas, including fields flooded for agricultural production, that would revert to upland should application of irrigation water to that area cease;
  •  Artificial lakes and ponds, including water storage reservoirs and farm, irrigation, stock watering, and log cleaning ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters, so long as those artificial lakes and ponds are not impoundments of jurisdictional waters that are connected the territorial seas, or waters used in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Water-filled depressions constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters incidental to mining or construction activity, and pits excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters for the purpose of obtaining fill, sand, or gravel;
  • Stormwater control features constructed or excavated in upland or in nonjurisdictional waters to convey, treat, infiltrate, or store stormwater run-off;
  • Groundwater recharge, water reuse, and wastewater recycling structures, including detention, retention, and infiltration basins and ponds, constructed or excavated in upland or in non-jurisdictional waters; and
  • Waste treatment systems.

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

Changes made to proposed rule

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

So, WOTUS is set in stone now, right?

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

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

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

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

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

South Carolina lawsuit

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

New Mexico lawsuit

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

Will the tide turn on WOTUS in the future?

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

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

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

WOTUS background

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

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

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

…but 2015 WOTUS still applies in Ohio and Tennessee

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

What regulation applies in which states?

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

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

What’s next?

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

By: Evin Bachelor, Monday, February 18th, 2019

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.

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

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.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

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 epa.tmdl@epa.ohio.gov, 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.

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