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.
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.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate
Readers of the Ag Law Blog will recall our previous posts regarding Governor Kasich’s “watersheds in distress” executive order and the rules proposed to accompany the order. The proposed rules were recently filed and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission continues to hold meetings about which watersheds will actually be designated as “distressed.”
“Watersheds in Distress” rules are filed and hearing is scheduled
On October 15, 2018, the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) filed the proposed watersheds in distress rules in the Register of Ohio, which would make changes to Ohio Administrative Code Sections 901:13-1-11, 901:13-1-19, and 901:13-1-99. A hearing on the proposed amendments will be held on November 20, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. in the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Bromfield Administration Building, Auditorium 141, 8995 East Main Street, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, 43068-3399. Interested members of the public are invited to attend and participate. Written comments are also welcomed, and information about where to send such comments can be found here. Below, we will outline the proposed changes to each rule in turn.
- OAC 901:13-1-11
OAC 901:13-1-11 currently only applies to land application of manure in watersheds in distress. The proposed changes to the rule would also make it applicable to the land application of “nutrients,” or “nitrogen, phosphorous, or a combination of both,” in watersheds in distress. Under the proposed amendments, those responsible “for the land application of nutrients on more than fifty acres” of agricultural land would not be allowed to “surface apply nutrients:”
On snow-covered or frozen soil;
When the top two inches of soil are saturated from precipitation; and
In a granular form when the local weather forecast for the application area contains greater than a fifty per cent chance of precipitation exceeding one inch in a twelve-hour period.
The same restrictions would apply for manure. If either manure or nutrients are “injected into the ground,” “incorporated within twenty-four hours of surface application,” or “applied to a growing crop,” however, the above restrictions would not apply.
The proposed changes would also alter and remove some language currently in the rule. The new rule would also remove the date restrictions on the surface application of manure that currently exist, as well as the requirement that the responsible party keep records of the local weather forecast. A document with the proposed amendments can be found here.
- OAC 901:13-19
Proposed changes to OAC 901:13-19 would require those who apply nutrients to more than fifty acres annually in a watershed in distress to “develop and operate in conformance with a nutrient management plan.” The original rule only applies to those applying manure. The new rule would also require “an attestation to the completion” of nutrient management plans to be “submitted” to the Director of ODA. The Director would also be given the power to “establish a deadline for all NMPs to be completed,” which would have to happen twelve to thirty-six months after the designation of a watershed in distress. The Director would also have the power to request NMPs from producers. The new rule would further require ODA to audit at least five percent of the attestations every year. Attestations would have to be completed each time an NMP is updated.
As for the content in the NMPs, the proposed rule would remove date prohibitions on manure application. The proposed rule also prescribes the form that NMP plans for nutrient application must take, as well as the information that must be included. The proposed rule would also change some language around so that parts that once only applied to manure would apply to nutrients, as well. The proposed changes to OAC 901:13-19 can be found here.
- OAC 901:13-1-99
OAC 901:13-1-99 contains the civil penalties for violating any of the rules in 901:13-1. The proposed changes to this section would reflect the changes to the other sections discussed above by including penalties for violating the new rule provisions.
More meetings will be held to determine which watersheds are “distressed”
In addition to the proposed rules for watersheds in distress, activity is also taking place on which particular watersheds within the Western Lake Erie Basin will actually be designated “distressed.” To this end, the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission has held several public meetings throughout the summer and fall to examine the question. Today, November 1, 2018, the Commission will hold yet another public meeting, where a vote on which watersheds are designated “distressed” may occur.
Stay tuned to the Ag Law Blog for updates on watershed in distress designations and the accompanying proposed rules!
In an ongoing attempt to carry out Governor Kasich's executive order to establish nutrient management requirements for agricultural nutrients within "watersheds in distress," the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has made a second revision to its proposed rule package. According to ODA, the proposed watersheds in distress rules "create a uniform, state-wide standard that governs the application of manure and fertilizer on frozen, snow-covered and rain-soaked ground" within areas designated as "watersheds in distress." pursuant to Ohio Admin. Code 1501:15-5-20. Those proposed standards include the following:
- Manure and nutrient application restrictions. Owners, operators and applicators shall not surface apply manure and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) on more than 50 acres of land used for agricultural production on snow covered, frozen and saturated soil or when there's a greater than 50% chance that precipitation would exceed one-half inch in 24 hours, unless the manure or nutrients are injected, incorporated with 24 hours or applied to a growing crop.
- Compliance with 590 standards. Owners, operators and applicators must follow the conservation practices in USDA's “Field Office Technical Guide,” also known as the “590 standards.”
- Nutrient management plan (NMP) requirements. Owners and operators within watersheds in distress must develop and comply with NMPs if applying nutrients on more than 50 acres or producing, applying, or received more than 350 tons or 100,000 gallons of manure annually by deadlines established by ODA, must submit an attestation of NMP completion to ODA, and must produce a copy of the plan within five days of a demand by ODA. The rule outlines the requirements and standards for NMPs.
- Ongoing compliance. Owners and operators must update NMPs and attestations once every three years or when conditions change.
- Enforcement. The rule includes penalities for failure to comply with rule provisions.
ODA proposed the first rule package in July, accepted public comments on the rule, and published a revised rule package for public comments. In response to the second round of comments, ODA has made another revision to the rule. The agency states that it is now amending the rule "to require the Department to conduct an audit of at least 5% of the attestations submitted to determine compliance regarding completion of nutrient management plans." Explaining the purpose of the revision, ODA states that "support was voiced from certain stakeholders regarding the flexibility of farmers to apply manure and nutrients during the winter months when conditions were favorable and safe to apply. In contrast, other stakeholders raised concerns that agricultural operations would no longer have any restrictions on the application of manure and nutrients. Stakeholders also raised concerns regarding the Department’s ability to enforce the new proposals."
The proposed watersheds in distress rule package is here and the business impact analysis for the rules is here. The public may submit comments on the proposal to ODA at AGReComments@agri.ohio.gov until October 5, 2018.
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.