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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.
Written by Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Update: The House passed H.B. 49 on May 2, 2017.
The Ohio legislature continues to consider revising the Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) law that affects taxation of agricultural land. However, the latest legislative discussions are not about Senate Bill 36, introduced by Senator Cliff Hite on February 7, 2017 (read more about that bill here). Instead, current debate centers on a new proposal in House Bill 49, Ohio’s “budget bill.” The House Finance Committee is currently considering that bill.
The budget bill proposal would require the equity yield rate used in the CAUV capitalization rate to equal the greater of either the 25 year average of the total rate of return on farm equity published by the USDA or the loan interest rate. The capitalization rate is used to calculate a valuation from an annual profit for an average Ohio farm, considering only agricultural factors. The proposal would establish a holding period of 25 years for calculating equity build-up and land value appreciation in the formula. Addressing concerns about taxation amounts on land in conservation programs, the bill also would place a ceiling on the taxable value of CAUV land used for conservation purposes by requiring the land to be valued as though it included the least productive soil.
The proposed changes to the CAUV program would be phased in over two reassessment update cycles. The bill would also reconcile the proposed changes with the current formula by specifying that during the first three-year cycle in each county (beginning with tax year 2017), the tax value of CAUV land would include one half of the difference between its value under the new versus the old formula.
Time may soon tell whether Ohio lawmakers will address the agricultural community’s concerns about property tax increases under the current CAUV formula and if so, whether it will prefer the House’s budget bill or the Senate’s proposal. The budget bill is available here--see page 652 of that document for the suggested changes to CAUV. The Senate’s bill, which has received four hearings before the Senate Ways and Means Committee but still remains in committee, is available here.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking public input on EPA regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification. The request for comments is in response to President Trump’s Executive Order 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda,” which required the heads of agencies such as the EPA to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations to repeal, replace, or modify regulations that create unnecessary burdens on the American people.
In announcing the agency’s regulatory reform plans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated that, “EPA will be listening to those directly impacted by regulations, and learning ways we can work together with our state and local partners, to ensure that we can provide clean air, land, and water to Americans.” Pruitt also issued harsh criticism of “misaligned regulatory actions from the past administration.”
Consistent with President Trump’s Executive Order, Pruitt appointed several EPA staff to a Regulatory Reform Task Force that will guide the agency’s reform efforts. In establishing the public comment process, the Task Force is asking entities significantly affected by federal regulations, including state, local and tribal governments, small businesses, consumers, non-governmental organizations, and trade associations to provide comments that will help the Task Force identify regulations that:
- Eliminate jobs or inhibit job creation;
- Are outdated, unnecessary or ineffective;
- Impose costs that exceed benefits;
- Create serious inconsistency or otherwise interfere with regulatory reform initiatives and policies;
- Rely on data, information or methods that are not publicly available or sufficiently transparent for reproducibility;
- Derive from Executive Orders or other Presidential directives that have been rescinded or modified.
The comment period offers the agricultural community an opportunity to raise concerns with EPA regulations that may negatively impact agricultural production. Note that agencies such as the EPA do not base regulatory decision-making on the total number of comments for or against an issue; it is not like a popular ballot vote. Instead, the EPA must base its regulations on information contained in public comments as well as on scientific data, expert opinions, and facts. After receiving comments in this initial public participation period, the EPA will likely develop recommendations for regulatory reform. If so, the agency must offer the public additional opportunity to comment on its reform proposals.
The EPA will accept public comments on regulatory reform until May 15, 2017. Instructions for submitting comments are available here. The agency has already received over 18,000 comments on its online docket, which is available here. Members of the public may request that the EPA allow more time to submit comments, and the EPA may consider late-filed comments if their decision-making schedule permits it. However, commenters should be aware that agencies do not have to consider late comments.
The EPA is also hosting public meetings around the country on regulatory reform in regards to different topics such as water, chemical safety and pesticides. A list of the public meetings is available here.
Written by: Chris Hogan, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Farmers are gearing up for spring and preparing to plant crops and graze livestock. Part of spring-cleaning may involve clearing partition fence rows at the edge of fields and trimming back overhanging branches above the fence. Overgrown tree branches can affect crops and pose a hazard to agricultural equipment. Removing trees that obstruct the fence row, noxious weeds tangled in the fence, and other unwanted vegetation is a serious matter for Ohio farmers. Ohio law provides for ways to clear a partition fence shared between two neighboring properties. Ohio law also cautions against damaging trees when trimming overhanging branches.
Clearing the fence row
This section only applies to the removal of vegetation in the fence row. Clearing overhanging trees above the fence is a separate matter discussed further below.
A partition fence is a fence that follows the division line between adjoining properties of two owners. The term “fence row” refers to the strip of land that is on either side of the fence. In order to keep a fence in good condition, owners should occasionally clear the fence row of obstructions caused by vegetation. Clearing a fence row keeps noxious weeds, brush, briers, and other vegetation from spreading onto a neighbor’s property. Ohio law provides several methods for a landowner to clear the fence row legally.
The easiest way to clear the fence row is to ask a neighbor to clear his or her side of the partition fence. Ohio law creates a duty for owners on either side of a partition fence to clear brush, briers, thistles and other noxious weeds in a strip four feet wide along the line of the fence, after a landowner gives notice to a neighbor asking them to do so. It is best to be polite, patient, and clear when speaking with a neighbor about when you would each like to clear the fence row. A landowner and a neighboring owner should try to establish a timeline to clear each side of the fence row.
What if a landowner asks a neighbor to clear the fence row on their side of a partition fence and they refuse? Once a landowner asks a neighbor to clear a fence row, that neighbor has ten days to do so. If a neighbor does not clear it within ten days, the landowner can ask the local board of township trustees to arrange for the fence row to be cleared.
After a landowner notifies the trustees that a neighbor refused to clear the fence row within ten days, the township trustees must view the property to determine if there is just cause for the complaint. Next, if there is a cause for the complaint, the trustees will enter into a contract with a third party to clear the fence row and certify the associated costs to the county auditor. The county auditor will bill the neighboring landowner for the work to clear the fence row. The auditor will assess these costs against the neighboring landowner by adding these costs to his or her property tax bill.
Trimming back overhanging branches
Landowners have the right to trim vertically and remove overhanging obstructions from above their side of the fence. Ohio courts recognize this privilege to remove obstructions, but not without limitations. Ohio courts do not permit landowners to cause harm to the other side of the property line. A landowner should be careful not to damage the neighbor’s trees or trespass on to the neighbor’s property when trimming overhanging branches. Landowners may be liable to a neighbor if they recklessly damage a neighbor’s tree when removing overhanging branches.
Landowners should review their rights and responsibilities to maintain fences prior to clearing the fence row this spring. For more information on line fence law, visit the Ag Law Library here.