Featuring the work of Carolyn C. Jolly, Law Fellow, National Agricultural Law Center
OSU’s Agricultural & Resource Law Program is fortunate to be a partner with the National Agricultural Law Center, which includes working with the Center’s Law Fellows—students currently studying law in different law schools across the country. Carolyn C. Jolly is one of our current Law Fellows, and she has an interest in environmental laws that affect agriculture. Carolyn is the author of today’s blog. She has assembled a harvest of environmental updates affecting agriculture that include approval of Ohio EPA’s phosphorus TMDL, a practical ESA guide for producers, EPA’s commitment to adhering to its ESA requirements, and an update on participation by agricultural producers in voluntary carbon markets.
EPA Approves Ohio’s Maumee Watershed Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load
In 2014, phosphorous runoff from farms in the western basin of Lake Erie caused an algal bloom. Harmful algal blooms produce toxins that impair drinking water, affect aquatic life, and hinder recreational use. Coming up with a solution to reduce the phosphorus runoff has been contentious. In 2019, Toledo voters passed a bill that would allow citizens to sue farmers on behalf of the lake. This measure was held to be unconstitutional, but it could have greatly impacted the ability of farmers and producers to continue their operations. To address specific pollutants, the Clean Water Act requires states to develop Total Maximum Dailey Loads (TMDL). Environmental interests and local governments in Ohio legally challenged both the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA to establish a TMDL for the western Lake Erie Basin. In June of 2023, the Ohio EPA did submit a proposed TMDL for to the EPA and it was approved in September. The aim of the TMDL is to reduce phosphorus runoff in the Maumee Watershed.
Here are some of the approaches for agricultural areas the EPA included in the TMDL:
- Soil testing and nutrient management planning efforts (e.g., Voluntary Nutrient Management Plans via H2Ohio funding)
- Variable rate fertilization and subsurface placement of fertilizer (e.g., following the ‘4 R’s’ of nutrient management: using the right nutrient at the right rate and right time in the right place)
- Manure incorporation (mixing manure into soils or placing the manure below the soil surface)
- Conservation crop rotation and cover crops (e.g., improving soil health, increasing soil organic matter, improving soil moisture storage capacity, etc.)
Agricultural Water Quantity Management
- Drainage water management (e.g., management of discharge from agricultural tile drainage lines to store water in the water table beneath fields and reduce discharge to surface waters)
- Edge-of-field buffers (e.g., planting in riparian areas to increase water storage and decrease nutrient and sediment inputs, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative)
- Two-stage ditch deployment (e.g., modifying the profile of stream channel bottoms by constructing a bench/floodplain adjacent to the existing stream channel to slow water flow during high flow events and trap nutrients and sediment)
- Wetland restoration and preservation (e.g., the restoration/protection of existing wetlands are beneficial for storing water and nutrients on the landscape, Environmental Quality Incentives Program; Western Lake Erie Basin Project - Ohio)
Read the Final TMDL on the Ohio EPA’s webpage for the Maumee Watershed.
Agricultural Producers Now have a Practical Guide to the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is intended to protect endangered and threatened species and thus has an impact on agriculture and land use across the country. However, being such a wide-ranging piece of legislation, it can be difficult to understand the law and its full impact on agriculture. Brigit Rollins, an attorney with our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center, set out to answer how and why the ESA affects agriculture and land use by creating the Endangered Species Act Manual: A Practical Guide to the ESA for Agricultural Producers. It is a concise guide that describes the history of the ESA, influential case law, regulatory changes, and specifics of the ESA’s impact on agriculture. Additionally, it is meant to be a living document that will be updated with current changes and issues.
EPA on Balancing ESA Requirements and Responsible Pesticide Use
When registering new uses for pesticides and reviewing already registered uses, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to consult the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure that the use follows ESA standards. This can be a lengthy process and the EPA has complied with the process in less than 5% of its actions. This noncompliance has resulted in substantial litigation. To address these issues, EPA issued its ESA Workplan. EPA actions in the workplan include developing mitigation measures for particularly vulnerable species, developing and implementing strategies to identity mitigation measures for the different classes of pesticides, completion of ESA work for eight organophosphates and four rodenticides, and hosting a workshop with stakeholders to explore other methods of offsetting pesticide impacts. EPA also released its Draft Herbicide Strategy for comment and the Rodenticide, Insecticide, and Fungicide Strategies are under development. The EPA has also released its ESA guidance for future registrations.
Agricultural Producer Participation in Carbon Markets
To mitigate climate change, Congress passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act (GCSA) to improve access to carbon markets for agricultural producers. In accordance with the law’s requirements, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) released A General Assessment of the Role of Agriculture and Forestry in the U.S. Carbon Markets on October 23, 2023. The report addresses participation by agricultural producers in the carbon market, barriers to and concerns or participation, and ways to improve producer participation. The report notes that even though producers are aware of the carbon market, voluntary participation has been low. According to the report, “Producers cite the concerns about the return on investment, upfront costs, data collection burdens, compensation for pre-existing practices, permanence requirements, issues of scale, and confusion about carbon markets and programs as key factors in their evaluation into whether to participate in a carbon project.” The USDA concludes that to reduce barriers to participation, strategies need to be implemented to “reduce transaction costs, minimize record-keeping burdens, address early-adopter and permanence requirement concerns, and address barriers related to project scale.” The report also details the USDA’s role in improving participation through outreach and education, offering grants and partnerships, supporting carbon market infrastructure, and investing in measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification of carbon credit procedures.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.
Like the farm fields across Ohio lately, a little dust has been flying down at the Statehouse in Columbus. Our legislators are back to work and considering several bills that could affect agriculture. A few bills aren’t seeing much action, though. Here’s a summary of recent activity and inactivity at the Statehouse.
Newly introduced bills
H.B. 440 and S.B.241 – Agricultural Linked Deposit Program. This pair of bills introduced on September 30, 2021 by Representatives Swearingen (R-Huron) and White (R-Kettering) and Senators Cirino (R-Kirtland) and Rulli (R-Salem) is one of three bills in the “Ohio Gains Initiative” offered in partnership with Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague. The Initiative proposes three new investment reforms affecting agriculture, health systems, and higher education. The agricultural proposal in H.B. 440 and S.B. 241 would expand the current Ag-LINK loan program that provides interest rate reductions of up to 3% on operating loans. The bill would make the loans available to cooperatives in addition to farm operators and agribusinesses and would also remove the $150,000 cap on Ag-LINK loans. It’s been referred to the House Financial Institutions Committee and the Senate Financial Institutions & Technology Committee.
Bills on the move
H.B. 175 – Deregulate certain ephemeral water features. The bill addresses “ephemeral features”—surface water that flows or pools only in direct response to precipitation but that is not a wetland. Under the proposal, ephemeral features would be exempt from water pollution control programs in Ohio, including the Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification Program, as proposed in the federal 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule now on hold. The bill would also eliminate the certification review fee for ephemeral streams. H.B. 175 passed the House on September 30, 2021, amidst strong opposition. It awaits review before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
H.B. 397 – Agricultural lease law. A proposal to address termination dates and notice provisions for crop leases received its second hearing before the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee on October 12. H.B. 397 would require a landowner who wants to terminate a crop lease that doesn’t address termination to do so by providing a written notice of termination to the tenant by September 1 of the year the termination would be effective. Discussion at the committee hearing could result in a broadening of the bill to include pasture leases.
S.B. 47 – Overtime pay. The Senate passed this bill on September 22, and it has since been referred to the House Commerce and Labor Committee. The bill exempts certain activities from the requirement for an employer to pay overtime wages. Under the proposal, traveling to and from a worksite would be exempt from overtime. Performing preliminary or postliminary tasks and activities outside of work hours that require insubstantial periods of time, such as checking email or voice mail, would also be exempt. The bill now moves to the House Commerce and Labor Committee.
Bills not moving
Several bills we’ve been watching have not generated continued interest at the Statehouse, including:
- H.B. 95, the Beginning Farmers bill that would provide income tax credits for beginning farmers who attend approved financial management programs and for owners who sell land and agricultural assets to certified beginning farmers. It passed the House in late June but was removed from the agenda when first scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on September 28, 2021.
- H.B. 30, the bill adding marking and lighting requirements to animal-drawn vehicles, also passed the House in late June but has not seen action since its second hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee on September 22, 2021.
- H.B. 385, which would prohibit municipalities in the Western Basin of Lake Erie from discharging waste into those waters, fine those who do, and revoke NPDES permits for municipalities owning treatment works or sewerage systems within the Western Basin. The bill received one hearing before the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee on September 28.
- H.B. 349, which would place a moratorium on granting permits for a new construction or expansion of a regulated animal feeding facility in the Maumee watershed if the Ohio Department of Agriculture has determined that the phosphorus load in the Maumee River exceeded a specified number. The House Agriculture and Conservation Committee has not scheduled the bill for a hearing since it was referred to the committee on June 16, 2021.
Bills now effective
S.B. 52, the bill addressing large-scale wind and solar facility development in Ohio, became effective on October 11, 2021. The bill allows county commissioners to prohibit wind and solar developments and to establish restricted areas in the county that are off limit to the developments, gives county citizens an opportunity to place a restricted area designation on the ballot, increases local awareness and engagement in review of a proposed facility, and requires decommissioning plans and bonds for approved developments. Learn more about S.B. 52 with our law bulletins and videos on the new laws, available in our energy law library.
The final day of April is already here! Spring feels like it has finally arrived and planting season is in motion across Ohio. Just like farmers in the field, legislatures, government bodies, and courts across the country are hard at work addressing critical agricultural and resource law issues. We've gathered a collection of those issues for this Ag Law Harvest.
Debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers is in the works. The USDA has announced its plans for implementing debt relief to socially disadvantaged producers mandated by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that Congress passed in March. The payments will be 120% of any outstanding Farm Service Agency Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans and Farm Storage Facility Loans held by a socially disadvantaged farmer on January 1, 2021. The additional 20% on top of the loan balance is for tax liabilities associated with the payment, as it will be considered income. For purposes of this debt relief program, a “socially disadvantaged producer” is one who is Black or African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American or Pacific Islander. A producer must indicate the identification on the Customer Data Worksheet, USDA Form AD-2047, filed with the FSA. Producers who fit into the socially disadvantaged producer definition can update those forms now with the local FSA office. No other action by a producer who is eligible for the debt relief is necessary, as the FSA will notify producers of the payoff process as it occurs. For more information, visit this webpage for the USDA’s American Rescue Plan Debt Payments.
Missouri’s Truth in Labeling Law. In 2018, Missouri enacted a law making it a criminal offense to “misrepresent a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Violators could potentially face up to one year in prison and/or a fine up to $2,000.00. Shortly after the law went into effect, Turtle Island Foods Inc., a business that makes Tofurky (an alternative meat product) and advocacy groups such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund (collectively the “Plaintiffs”), filed a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s law on the grounds that the law violated the U.S. Constitution including the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Dormant Commerce Clause. The district court denied Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction determining that Missouri’s law only prohibits companies from misleading consumers. Plaintiffs then appealed to the federal circuit court. Last month the Eighth Circuit Court issued its opinion and agreed with the district court. However, the Eighth Circuit noted that the facts of this specific case did not support overturning Missouri’s law, but that facts and circumstances of another case may provide otherwise. As it stands, Missouri’s law remains in full force and effect.
Renewable Fuel Standard deadlines extended. The EPA issued its final rule extending deadlines for obligated parties to comply with Renewable Fuel Standard deadlines for 2019 and 2020. Under the extension, small refineries must submit 2019 compliance forms by November 30, 2021, and their associated attest engagement forms by June 1, 2022. For 2020, obligated parties must submit their compliance documents by January 31, 2022, and their associated attest engagement reports by June 1, 2022. Lastly, the EPA extended the deadline for obligated parties to submit attest engagement reports for 2021 to September 1, 2022, the deadline for 2021 compliance documents remains unchanged.
Ohio man sentenced for stealing grain. How often do you hear of farmers being victims of theft and a criminal on the run? Well, last month an Ohio man was sentenced to one year in prison and 5 years of probation after stealing over $94,000.00 in harvested grain. The defendant took his employer’s gravity wagon full of grain and sold it to a local co-op in Ashland County under false pretenses. After the theft was discovered, the defendant fled from Ohio, eventually having to be extradited from New Mexico. This case demonstrates just how vulnerable farmers are to potential crimes. For more information on intentional harm to farm property and your rights, check out our law bulletin.
Iowa passes agricultural trespass law. Iowa lawmakers have recently passed a new law that will make certain types of trespass on Iowa farms a criminal offense in an effort to stop animal activists and others from secretly documenting activities. House File 775 makes it illegal to take soil or water samples and samples of an animal’s bodily fluids or other byproducts. Additionally, the law makes it a crime to place or use a camera on the farm property without the owner’s consent. Proponents of the law argue that such laws are necessary to protect private property rights and prevent bioterrorism. Opponents of the bill are expected to challenge the law on First Amendment grounds.
USDA discussing current issues surrounding shipping U.S. agricultural exports. USDA had a meeting with the U.S. Department of Transportation and agricultural stakeholders to discuss the challenges of exporting U.S. agricultural products. Challenges arose in the fall of 2020 and have only continued to get worse. With the resurgence of international trade, nearly every sector of the supply chain has been under stress, including warehousing, trucking, rail service, container availability, and vessel service. Farmers have long struggled with finding a market for their products and getting a fair price for their work. With worldwide markets opening back up, the USDA and the Department of Transportation are hard at work trying to ensure that U.S. farm products reach consumers across the globe.
Farmers to Families Food Box program to end May 31, 2021. As part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program announced in April 2020, the Farmers to Families Food Box program was designed and implemented as a temporary relief effort to purchase produce, dairy, and meat products from American farmers and distribute these products in family-sized boxes to Americans in need. In a letter to stakeholders, the USDA announced that due to the improving economy and the access food insecure Americans have to expanded federal nutritional programs like SNAP, WIC, P-EBT, and more, the need for the Farmers to Families Food Box program no longer exists. The USDA also stated that the lessons learned from the Farmers to Food Box program will continue to be implemented in current and future programs. The USDA has already begun to offer a fresh produce box on a temporary basis through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and is in the process of designing a Dairy Donation Program to facilitate the timely donation of dairy products to nonprofit organizations that distribute food to persons in need and to help prevent and minimize food waste.
Grant program to enhance the waters of Lake Erie. The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has announced that the USDA has awarded ODA’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation a five-year, $8-million grant to help improve the water quality in Lake Erie. The program will reinforce Governor Mike Dewine’s H2Ohio initiative by assisting farmers in developing nutrient management plans and conservation practices. The grant will be available to farmers in Crawford, Erie, Huron, Marion, Ottawa, Richland, Sandusky, Seneca, Shelby, and Wyandot counties. Farmers can start applying for the program through their local soil & water district office later this summer.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags replacing the branding iron? Last year the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service proposed to approve a rule that would require using RFID eartags for use on cattle that move across state lines. While the rule has not yet been finalized, the proposed rule, which is supposed to take effect January 2023, has not been free of controversy. The USDA believes the use of a RFID tag will provide the cattle industry with the best protection against the rapid spread of animal diseases. Some farmers, on the other hand, feel they should be able to use currently approved methods to maintain their cattle. To fight for their right, the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) has filed a lawsuit in a Wyoming Federal Court on behalf of some Wyoming cattle producers. R-CALF argues that the USDA has improperly used advisory committees to create new rules in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Essentially, R-CALF argues that neither the USDA nor its subcommittees followed correct procedure as required by federal law in order to create this proposed RFID rule. R-CALF seeks to prevent the USDA from using the recommendations obtained from the subcommittees in violation of federal law and in its place ask the court to require the USDA to revisit the RFID eartag issue with subcommittees that are compliant with federal law.
All farm employees are set to receive overtime pay in the state of Washington. Last November the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s exclusion of dairy workers from overtime pay was in violation of the state’s constitution. Since the Washington Supreme Court ruling, several class-action lawsuits were filed against Washington dairy farmers for unpaid overtime hours, threatening to wipe out the Washington dairy industry. Fearing the worst, Washington legislators worked diligently to pass Senate Bill 5172 ending the overtime exemption for all of agriculture and to make the transition for agricultural employers as smooth as possible. The prevents lawsuits for unpaid overtime from being filed after the Washington Supreme Court decision and to phase in overtime in the agriculture industry. Beginning in 2022, agricultural employees will be paid overtime for time worked over 55 hours in any one workweek and by 2024, employees shall be paid overtime for any time worked over 40 hours in any one workweek. Senate Bill 5172 awaits the Washington Governor's signature.
Not long after its 10th anniversary, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) received a hefty package celebrating its success. Congress passed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act of 2019 last month, not only reauthorizing the GLRI for another five years but also significantly increasing its funding levels. The annual funds for GLRI will grow from $300 to $330 million in 2021, to $375 million in 2022, and up another $25 million per year until reaching $475 million in 2026. The GLRI had been set to expire at the end of 2021 and faced funding threats in recent years. The boost in funding with solid bi-partisan support, however, suggests long term viability for the GLRI.
The GLRI began in 2010 with the goals of making water safe to drink and fish safe to eat, reducing harmful algal blooms, protecting native habitat and species and prohibiting invasive species in the Great Lakes basin. It does so by awarding grants for projects that aim to restore and protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes basin. In its ten-year history, GLRI has funneled $2.7 billion into over 5,000 projects in the eight states that comprise the Great Lakes ecosystem.
In Ohio, GLRI has funded projects for the removal of dams, agricultural best management practices, stream restoration, coastal wetlands, management of invasive species, and clean-up of contaminated sediments in Ohio’s four targeted “areas of concern,” which include the Ashtabula, Black, Cuyahoga, and Maumee Rivers. Ohioans can expect to see more of these and other projects in the coming years.
For more on the GLRI, visit this link.
Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Ellen Essman
In the not-too-surprising news category, a federal court has invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) that Toledo residents passed last year to recognize and protect legal rights for Lake Erie. What is surprising, however, is how the court reached its decision to strike down LEBOR, even in the wake of a law passed by the Ohio legislature in July of 2019 that denies legal standing to nature and prevents a person from bringing a court action on behalf of nature or any ecosystem.
The verdict came exactly one year after Drewes Farm Partnership filed its federal lawsuit to prevent enforcement of LEBOR a day after Toledoans passed the measure. Drewes Farm asserted that LEBOR violated the farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Drewes Farm also argued that LEBOR exceeded the City of Toledo’s authority because it usurped the power of the state and the federal government by interfering with international relations, invalidating state and federal permits, invalidating state law, altering the rights of corporations, and creating new causes of action in state courts. In April 2019, the state of Ohio joined the lawsuit as a fellow plaintiff. Proponents of LEBOR unsuccessfully attempted to join in the litigation.
Did the plaintiffs have the right to bring the case?
The opinion begins with the court’s “standing” analysis. Toledo argued that Drewes Farm and Ohio did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the City. Legal standing requires that a plaintiff (1) suffers an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Failing to meet the legal standing requirement would force dismissal of the lawsuit. Without a finding in favor of legal standing, the court wouldn’t be able to determine LEBOR’s validity.
The central issue in whether the parties had legal standing was the injury in fact requirement, according to the court. To challenge LEBOR, the plaintiffs must demonstrate “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” The court determined that the state of Ohio met this requirement because it suffered an injury, “at least on paper,” from LEBOR’s invalidation of Ohio laws, regulations, licenses and permits and because the state “could” be sued under LEBOR. The judge also found that Drewes Farm demonstrated injury in fact since any Toledo resident “could” sue the farm for violating LEBOR.
In its brief attention to the second component of standing, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, the court determined that the potential injuries were traceable to Toledo because its city charter was amended by voters to include the LEBOR language. Even though the City itself did not legislatively enact LEBOR, had actually attempted to keep the issue off the ballot due to concerns that it was unconstitutional, and had not indicated any intent to enforce LEBOR, the court concluded that “the City is a proper defendant in the suit.” The court also found that invalidating LEBOR would redress the plaintiffs’ injuries, the final requirement for legal standing.
LEBOR violates due process
The court next directly examined only one of the many constitutional claims against LEBOR, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and specifically focused on one element of due process: clarity of the law. The court stated that if a law is vague and unclear, it can “trap the innocent by not providing fair warning and invite arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.” Pointing to language in LEBOR such as the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and Toledoans’ right to a “clean and healthy environment,” the court questioned what type of conduct would violate the broad language and how a judge or jury would determine the line between “clean and unclean and healthy and unhealthy.” Spreading even a small amount of fertilizer could possibly violate LEBOR, the court said, as well as countless other activities such as catching fish, pulling weeds, planting corn, or driving a gas-powered vehicle. Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the language is void for vagueness. While LEBOR’s language sounds powerful, the court explained, it has no practical meaning, contains merely “aspirational statements” rather than rules of law, and violates constitutional due process.
What about other constitutional claims?
The court surprisingly didn’t tackle the many other constitutional issues raised by Drewes Farm and the State. But in its “severability” analysis, the court did briefly touch on the constitutionality of LEBOR’s preemption of state and federal laws. LEBOR contains a severability clause stating that a determination of one part of LEBOR as invalid does not invalidate the remaining parts of LEBOR. According to the court, this severability clause is valid only if the constitutional and unconstitutional parts of LEBOR are capable of separation and can stand by themselves. The court concluded that once the vague rights are stripped away, the remaining parts of LEBOR are meaningless.
The court then took the opportunity to note that LEBOR’s attempt to preempt Ohio law in the name of environmental protection would fail on its own merits. Lake Erie’s health falls well beyond Toledo’s authority and rights to govern its internal affairs, and enacting laws that conflict with Ohio law is a “textbook example of what municipal government cannot do,” said the court.
Protecting Lake Erie is a worthy goal
In a slightly sympathetic nod to LEBOR supporters “frustrated by the status quo,” the court notes that using a democratic process to protect Lake Erie is a well-intentioned goal but LEBOR simply fails to achieve the goal. Careful drafting by Toledoans could result in valid legislation that would reduce water pollution, the court explains, while highlighting an ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin that restricted the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in the city and withstood a legal challenge.
It comes as no surprise
Echoing what many had already concluded, the court criticized LEBOR’s authors for ignoring legal principals and constitutional limitations and stated that LEBOR’s invalidation should come as no surprise. “This is not a close call,” the court says. “LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio. It is therefore invalid in its entirety.”
LEBOR has met the end of its road, but it never really stood a chance of actual enforcement due to its clearly unconstitutional language. LEBOR’s proponents often claimed that the purposes of LEBOR were to gain more attention to Lake Erie’s poor water quality and to push the concept of recognizing legal rights for nature and ecosystems a bit further down the road. Were they successful? Will Toledoans give up, or will they regroup and carefully draft new legislation to protect their water?
Farmers in Ohio now have absolute certainty that they will not be sued for violating Lake Erie’s “rights,” but such a lawsuit never really stood a chance of actual success due to LEBOR’s clearly unconstitutional language. And let’s not forget the new language in Ohio Revised Code §2305.01 stating that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas; no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas; and no person shall bring an action in any court of common pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem.”
And what about Lake Erie’s water quality? New voluntary programs are rolling out from Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan. But many claim that more forceful measures are necessary. Other litigation over the lake’s water quality lingers, and Ohio has listed the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired” and must develop a plan to address Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants in the lake. It’s no surprise that even though it’s the end of the road for LEBOR, conflicts over solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will continue.
For the last several years, the state of Ohio and the U.S. EPA have been plagued with objections and lawsuits—from states, local governments, and environmental groups—concerning Ohio’s list of impaired waters and development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Some of our past blog posts on the subject are available here, here, and here.) Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states are required to submit a list of impaired, or polluted, waters every two years. Typically, designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of TMDLs for different pollutants, and an action plan for meeting those TMDLs. Ohio repeatedly failed to include the Western Basin in its list of impaired waters, even though the area has been subject to pollution-caused algal blooms in recent years. When the state finally listed the Western Basin waters as impaired in 2018, it still did not develop the accompanying TMDL for the area. However, Ohio’s TMDL drought ended last week.
Ohio EPA announced on February 13, 2020, that it would develop TMDLs for the Western Basin “over the next two to three years.” This decision will ultimately affect farmers in the watershed, as it is likely that the Ohio EPA would create TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers in the Western Basin. Consequently, farmers may have to reduce the amounts they put on their fields, and/or implement additional measures to keep such inputs from running off into the water.
So, Ohio listed the Western Basin as impaired and is working on TMDLs for the area—the controversy is over, right? Not so fast. Lucas County, Ohio and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA that is still ongoing. (We last discussed this lawsuit here.) Basically, the plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the U.S. EPA violated the CWA when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate the Western Basin as impaired in 2018, but did not make the state develop TMDLs. Even though Ohio has since promised to implement TMDLs for the area, the outcome of the case will still weigh in on the crucial question of whether the U.S. EPA can make states create TMDLs for impaired waters under the CWA. In addition, the U.S. District Court case applies to Ohio’s 2018 impaired waters list, whereas Ohio EPA’s recent announcement concerns the 2020 list. Finally, it’s doubtful that environmental groups and others will stop their efforts just because Ohio has now promised to create TMDLs—it’s almost a certainty that the debate over pollution in the Western Basin and the best ways to remedy the problem will persist.
Lawsuits against the U.S. EPA and individual states seem to be a popular strategy to address water pollution problems. Last April, we wrote about Lucas County, Ohio and its suit against the EPA over water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie. Since that time, a federal judge has given another lawsuit concerning Lake Erie, filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), the green light. But not all litigation concerns Ohio waters—recently, Maryland’s attorney general was directed to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania over water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Here are summaries of these two developments.
Environmental Law & Policy Center vs. EPA
We wrote about this lawsuit in February 2019, when ELPC had just filed its complaint. Essentially, ELPC contended that the U.S. EPA violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without instituting a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants going into the lake. You can get more details on this case by reading our blog post, here. Subsequently, EPA moved to dismiss the complaint. In addition, Lucas County joined ELPC as co-plaintiffs.
On November 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied EPA’s motion to dismiss. Judge James Carr ruled that the case can go forward, finding that ELPC “plausibly alleges that Ohio EPA has clearly and unambiguously refused to develop a TMDL for Western Lake Erie.” This means that the action will go forward and that ELPC will be able to argue the case on the merits. You can read the ruling here.
Maryland to sue EPA, Pennsylvania
Meanwhile, in Maryland, the governor recently sent a letter to the state’s attorney general asking him to “commence litigation” against the EPA for “failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay” TMDL, and against its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, for “repeatedly falling short of necessary pollution reduction goals.” At the center of this controversy is Pennsylvania’s draft Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which Maryland’s governor alleges will cause Pennsylvania to fall far behind its 2025 pollution reduction targets in addition to not meeting the TMDL. The governor asserts that by accepting Pennsylvania’s WIP with very few changes, the EPA is failing to enforce Pennsylvania’s compliance with the established TMDL.
It typically takes these types of lawsuits a while to work through the courts. The way the courts decide these cases will affect how TMDLs are viewed. Are TMDLs necessary under the CWA and enforceable, as the plaintiffs claim? Or are TMDLs simply soft goals and guidelines for reducing pollution that EPA does not necessarily have to enforce? Ultimately, outcomes of these cases could have implications for agricultural runoff, which can be a contributor to pollution in both Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay.
Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
The holidays are almost here, 2019 is almost over, but the world of ag law isn’t taking a break. From cannabidiol, to Ohio bills on water quality and wind power, to a cage-free egg law in Michigan, here’s the latest roundup of agricultural law news you may want to know:
FDA warns companies about cannabidiol products. If you’ve been following the hemp saga unfold over the past year, you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been contemplating what to do with cannabidiol, or CBD from derived hemp products. In addition to manufacturing standards, FDA has also considered how CBD products are marketed and labeled. Although FDA has issued no official rules on CBD marketing and labeling, the agency has warned a number of companies that their marketing of CBD violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). On November 25, FDA sent warning letters to 15 companies. FDA asserts that the companies “are using product webpages, online stores and social media to market CBD products in interstate commerce in ways that violate the FD&C Act.” In particular, FDA is apprehensive about those companies who market CBD products in ways that claim they can treat diseases or be used therapeutically for humans and animals. Since CBD has not been approved by FDA or found safe for these uses, companies cannot make such claims. You can see FDA’s news release for more information and for the list of companies.
It won’t be as difficult for financial institutions to serve hemp related businesses. Federal agencies and state bank regulators released a statement clarifying what is required of banks when hemp businesses are customers. Since hemp was removed from the federal list of controlled substances, banks no longer have to file a Suspicious Activity Report on every customer involved in growth or cultivation of hemp just because they grow hemp. This action will make it easier for those legally cultivating hemp to work with banks and obtain loans for their farms. For more information, the agencies’ press release is available here.
Ohio House considers the Senate’s water quality bill. Ohio’s House Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 2 just last week. The bill would implement a Statewide Watershed and Planning Program through the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Under the bill, ODA would be charged with categorizing watersheds in Ohio and appointing coordinators for each of the watersheds. ODA and the coordinators would work closely with soil and water conservation districts to manage watersheds. Ag groups such as the Sheep Improvement Association, the Cattleman’s Association, the Pork Council, the Dairy Producers Association, and the Poultry Association testified in favor of SB 2.
Ohio House committee debates wind bill. The House Energy & Natural Resources Committee was busy last week—in addition to SB 2, they also discussed House Bill 401. In the simplest terms, if passed, HB 401 would allow townships to hold a referendum on approved wind projects. This means that with a vote, townships could overturn decisions made by the Ohio Power and Siting Board (OPSB). In the committee hearing, wind industry representatives argued that such a referendum would be harmful, since it would overturn OPSB decisions after companies have already spent a great deal of money to be approved by the Board. They also argued that the bill singles out the wind industry and does not allow referendums on other energy projects. Republican committee members signaled that they may be willing to revise the language of HB 401 to allow a referendum before OPSB decisions.
Iowa’s ag-gag law is paused. In May, we wrote about Iowa’s new ag-gag law, which was the state’s second attempt to ban undercover whistleblowers and journalists from secretly filming or recording at livestock production facilities. In response, numerous animal rights groups sued the state, claiming that the law unconstitutionally prevents their speech based on content and viewpoint. On December 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction, which means that the state will not be able to enforce the ag-gag law while the lawsuit against it is being considered. The preliminary injunction can be found here.
Cage free eggs coming to Michigan in 2024. Michigan lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 174, which, among other things, will require that all birds producing eggs both in and out of the state be housed in “cage-free” facilities by 2024. The cage-free facilities will have to allow hens to roam unrestricted with the exception of exterior walls, and some types of fencing to contain the birds. In an indoor facility, the farmer must be able to stand in the hens’ usable floor space while caring for them. In addition, the facilities must have enrichments for hens such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas. Michigan joins California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington in banning non-cage-free eggs. Note that Michigan’s law will apply to Ohio egg producers who sell eggs to buyers in Michigan.
Case watch: hearing set in Lake Erie Bill of Rights case. The court has set a January 28, 2020 hearing date for the slow moving federal lawsuit challenging the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) enacted by Toledo voters in February. The hearing will likely focus on several motions to dismiss the case filed by the parties on both sides of the controversy, but Judge Zouhary indicated that he’ll set the agenda for the hearing prior to its date. Drewes Farm Partnership filed the federal lawsuit against the City of Toledo in February, claiming that LEBOR is unconstitutional and violates several Ohio laws. The State of Ohio was permitted to join the farm as plaintiffs in the case, but the court denied motions by Toledoans for Safe Water and the Lake Erie Ecosystem to join as defendants in the case. For more on the LEBOR lawsuit, refer to this post and this post. For our explanation of LEBOR, see this bulletin.
Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog as we continue to track these and other developments in agricultural law through the holidays and beyond.