Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Ohio EPA has released its draft water quality report for 2018 and the report proposes to list the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as “impaired.” Readers of the Ag Law Blog will remember that the road to this listing has been long and complicated. The numerous posts we’ve written on this subject can be found by searching “impaired waters” on our blog website.
The controversy began in the fall of 2016, when Michigan and Ohio submitted their respective impaired waters lists to the U.S. EPA. Every two years, a regulation promulgated under the Clean Water Act requires states to turn in a list of their impaired waters. Michigan listed the waters of Lake Erie under its jurisdiction as impaired, while Ohio did not list the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired. The waters described by Michigan as impaired and those not listed by Ohio are basically one in the same, hence the problem. The U.S. EPA approved Michigan’s list in early 2017, but made no decisions about Ohio’s list.
As a result of the discrepancy over Lake Erie, environmental and other groups sued the U.S. EPA to make a decision about Ohio’s impaired waters list. On May 18, 2017, the U.S. EPA approved Ohio’s list. However, on January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its earlier approval and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of the status of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.
With all of this back and forth and litigation, it is now long past the due date for the 2016 impaired waters list. As a result, the draft water quality report submitted by the Ohio EPA on March 22 contains the 2018 list.
Ohio EPA’s 2018 Draft Water Quality Report
In its draft water quality report, the Ohio EPA outlines the general condition of Ohio’s waters and lists “impaired waters” that are not meeting federal or state water quality goals and waters that have improved to meet water quality standards. For the first time, the EPA includes the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie on its impaired list. The impaired designation is for recreational uses “due to harmful algae” and for drinking water “due to occurrences of microcystin.” (Microcystin are harmful toxins created by blue-green algae. More information about these toxins is here.) Other new areas listed as impaired for drinking water due to harmful algae are Sims Run, parts of the Maumee River, the headwaters to Grand River and the headwaters of Cowan Creek in the Little Miami River watershed.
Next steps and public comments
While an impaired listing may not create immediate change in the Western Basin, it will require Ohio to create total maximum daily loads, which are the amounts of different pollutants allowed to be discharged each day in the open waters. This could eventually mean increased regulation of certain pollutants in the area, which may include agricultural nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen. Only time will tell.
The EPA is accepting written comments on its proposed list of impaired waters. Submit comments by May 4, 2018, to email@example.com, or to Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049, attn: 303(d) comments. Following public review and comments, the agency will submit a final report to the U.S. EPA. The agency published a news release on the draft water quality report and is hosting an upcoming webinar on the report on April 25, 2018.
Read the EPA's draft water quality report here.
by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Assoc., Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The saga of Ohio’s designation of impaired waters continues. Readers will recall previous posts on the Ag Law Blog detailing lawsuits against the U.S. EPA for failing to approve or disapprove Ohio’s 2016 list of impaired waters within the time limit required by law. Those posts are available here and here. Eventually, on May 19, 2017, the EPA accepted the Ohio EPA’s list of impaired waters, which did not include the open waters of Lake Erie’s western basin. Our blog post regarding that decision is here. That, however, was not the end of the story. In a letter to the Ohio EPA dated January 12, 2018, the U.S. EPA withdrew its May 2017 approval of Ohio's impaired waters list and asked Ohio to compile additional data for a new evaluation of Lake Erie.
What’s the issue?
Why has Ohio’s 2016 list of impaired waters been so hotly contested? Understanding this situation requires a little bit of background information. An EPA regulation created under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) requires that states submit a list of impaired waters every two years. "Impaired waters" are those water bodies that do not or are not expected to meet the water quality standards for their intended uses. Designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of pollutants, and an action plan for meeting TMDLs.
After a state submits its impaired waters list, the EPA must approve or disapprove the designations within 30 days. In the case of Ohio’s 2016 list, Ohio did not include the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie on its impaired waters list and the EPA delayed acting on the list until far beyond the 30 day mark. On the other hand, Michigan listed all of the waters of Lake Erie within its jurisdiction as impaired, which included the open waters in the western basin of Lake Erie. By approving both Ohio’s list and Michigan’s list, the EPA was agreeing to two different designations for what could essential be the same water in the same area of Lake Erie. As a result of this discrepancy, environmental groups brought a federal lawsuit against the EPA.
EPA withdraws approval
The EPA’s recent letter to Ohio could possibly have been prompted by the lawsuit mentioned above. In its letter, the EPA withdrew its May 2017 approval...”specifically with respect to the open waters of Lake Erie.” The agency states that Ohio’s 2016 submission failed to assemble and evaluate existing data and information related to nutrients in the open waters of Lake Erie, and directs Ohio to reevaluate available data and information by April 9, 2018.
The controversy over Ohio’s 2016 designation of impaired waters has gone on so long that it's now time for a new list. Ohio must submit a 2018 designation of impaired waters to the EPA by April 1, 2018. It is very likely that the withdrawal of approval for the 2016 list will affect which waters Ohio designates as impaired on its 2018 list, particularly in regards to the western basin of Lake Erie.
The withdrawal of approval could also affect the outcome of the current lawsuit against the EPA. The environmental groups plan to persist with the lawsuit even in light of the EPA’s withdrawal. It will be interesting to see who the District Court sides with, given the fact that the EPA has now taken steps to resolve the discrepancy at the heart of the lawsuit.
The letter from the U.S. EPA to the Ohio EPA is available here.
EPA reaches decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally rendered a decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters following several months of delay and two lawsuits filed to compel the EPA to make a decision. (For a background on impaired waters and the two lawsuits, check out our previous blog posts here and here.) On May 19, 2017, the EPA decided to accept the Ohio EPA’s proposed list of impaired waters for the State of Ohio. Ohio’s list does not include the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. However, the State of Michigan’s list of impaired waters previously approved by the EPA does include the open waters in its portion of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.
The EPA explained that the agency deferred to Ohio's judgment not to include the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie on the impaired waters list. "EPA recognizes the State's ongoing efforts to control nutrient pollution in the Western Basin of Lake Erie," stated Chris Korleski, EPA's Region 5 Water Division Director and previously Ohio's EPA Director. "EPA understands that Ohio EPA intends to evaluate options for developing objective criteria (e.g., microcystin or other metrics) for use in making decisions regarding the Western Basin for the 2018 list. EPA expects the development of appropriate metrics, and is committed to working with you on them."
For now, the EPA appears satisfied with Ohio's plan for addressing nutrient reductions in Lake Erie's Western Basin. It is possible, however, that additional lawsuits could be filed against the EPA in order to reconcile Ohio and Michigan's different designations of water in the same general area.
Read the EPA's Approval of Ohio's Submission of the State's Integrated Report with Respect to Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act here.
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
On May 17, 2017, the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and two of its members filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. ELPC filed the lawsuit to compel the EPA to either accept or reject Ohio’s list of impaired waters. In April, the National Wildlife Federation and other groups sued the EPA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for the same reason. For more information on the first lawsuit and a more thorough background on the topic, read our previous blog post.
Federal regulation under the Clean Water Act requires states to submit lists every two years of waters they determine to be impaired. The regulation also requires the EPA to either accept or reject the state listings within thirty days. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency submitted its list of impaired waters on October 20, 2016. The list did not include the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie. The EPA has not made a decision on Ohio’s list.
To make the situation more complex, Michigan did include its share of the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie on its list. What is more, the EPA approved of Michigan’s impaired waters list. The plaintiffs in both of these lawsuits seem to hope that forcing the EPA to make a decision on Ohio’s impaired list will resolve the differences in the two states’ listing of waters in the same general area of Lake Erie.
ELPC filed the lawsuit in the Toledo office of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, citing its proximity to Lake Erie, and in particular, to the pollution problem in the western basin of the lake. ELPC’s press release on its lawsuit is available here.
Groups sue EPA over lack of impaired waters decision
Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and five other environmental and outdoor groups (Plaintiffs) sued the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit due to EPA’s failure to approve or disapprove the list of impaired waters submitted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) within the time limit required by law. The Plaintiffs are particularly concerned that the EPA’s lack of a decision on the impaired waters list may affect pollution in Lake Erie’s waters.
A background on impaired waters designation
In 1972, Congress made amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The result was what we know today as the Clean Water Act (CWA). The very first section of the CWA states: “[t]he objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” In order to meet that objective, the CWA sets forth “effluent limitations,” or in other words, the amount of pollution allowed to be discharged. Polluters have different effluent limitations dependent on a number of variables. The states are to “identify” the waters where the “effluent limitations [from certain polluters] are not stringent enough” to meet water quality standards. The specific polluters to be examined are: 1) point sources, and 2) public treatment works either in existence on July 1, 1977 or approved under the CWA before June 30, 1974. For reference, point sources are defined as “any discernable, confined, and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” Point sources are not “agricultural stormwater discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.”
Those waters that states identify as not having stringent enough effluent limitations for point sources and public treatment works are called “impaired waters.” Along with the identification of impaired waters, states must also put forth total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), or the amounts of each kind of pollutant allowed. The CWA in its entirety is available here.
A regulation promulgated by the EPA under CWA mandates that states submit the list of waters they determine to be impaired every two years. The list must include a description of the “pollutants causing impairment” and their total maximum daily loads (TMDLs). The same regulation requires the EPA “to approve or disapprove such listing and loadings not later than 30 days after the date of submission.”
On October 20, 2016, OEPA submitted its list of impaired waters in the Ohio Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report, available here . The list of impaired waters included parts of Lake Erie, namely the Lake Erie Central Basin Shoreline and the Lake Erie Islands Shoreline. Significantly, OEPA did not include the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie on its list. The EPA has not responded to Ohio’s list by approving or disproving its listings.
Michigan submitted its impaired waters list in November 2016 and the EPA approved the report on February 3, 2017. Michigan listed the entirety of the Lake Erie waters in the state’s jurisdiction as impaired. This would include Michigan’s share of open waters in the western basin of Lake Erie. Michigan’s report is here.
The current lawsuit
As discussed above, six environmental and outdoor groups based in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois sued the EPA and its national and Region 5 administrators for the lack of a decision on OEPA’s list of impaired waters. The EPA was required to make the decision within 30 days of October 20, 2016. The Plaintiffs gave the EPA prior warning of their intention to sue in a notice sent on December 19, 2016. Since then, the EPA still has not come to a decision about Ohio’s list of impaired waters.
The crux of this lawsuit is the difference between Ohio and Michigan’s listings of waters in the same general area—the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Michigan listed the basin as impaired and Ohio did not. The Plaintiffs argue that the “inaction” on the part of the EPA “allows pollution… to continue unabated” throughout Lake Erie. Implicit in the Plaintiffs’ argument is that it seems unlikely that the EPA would allow one state to designate their Lake Erie water as impaired while the other state does not since water does not necessarily stay within state boundaries. The Plaintiffs appear to anticipate that EPA, when forced to make a decision, will disapprove of Ohio’s listing. Consequently, TMDLs could be established for greater areas of the Lake and water quality would likely be improved for the use and enjoyment of the Plaintiffs and their members.
What would a disapproval of OEPA’s list mean for Ohio?
If the court compels EPA to make a decision and EPA decides that OEPA was wrong to exclude the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie as impaired, EPA regulations give the EPA the authority to take action within thirty days. EPA actions would include identifying the waters as impaired and instituting the allowable TMDLs necessary to implement applicable water quality standards. After a public comment period and potential revisions to EPA’s actions, it would be up to the state of Ohio to meet the EPA’s TMDLs for the impaired waters.
What would a listing as impaired mean for Ohio residents—individuals, farms, and companies? It would probably mean increased regulations, likely in the form of reduced allowable loads of pollutants from the point sources and public treatment works discussed above. Time, effort, and money might be necessary to comply with such changes. Regulations and TMDLs might affect more Ohioans than before, since OEPA designated parts of Lake Erie as impaired but not others.
On the flip side, increased regulation could mean better water quality in Lake Erie for drinking, sport, and other uses. For now, Ohioans and others who use Lake Erie’s waters or are located in areas that drain to the Lake will have to wait for the federal court to act on the lawsuit.
The full complaint in National Wildlife Federation v EPA is available here.