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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense that a federal district court is the proper forum for challenges to the substance of the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule. The holding brings clarification for parties raising similar types of challenges under the federal Clean Water Act, who often filed cases in both the district and appellate courts due to confusion over which court has jurisdiction over the cases. Litigants can now be sure that the case should originate with the federal district court, which provides greater access for similar challenges but could create more inconsistent rulings around the country. The court’s decision arrives at an odd time, with the evolving WOTUS landscape now focused on formulation of a new WOTUS rule to replace the rule that is under fire.
The court’s reasoning
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is not surprising, a result of attention to the express language of the Clean Water Act rather than to several interpretations advanced by the government. The Clean Water Act places authority over Clean Water Act challenges in the federal district courts, with seven exceptions that are to be heard by the appellate courts. The federal government argued that two of those exceptions applied to its drafting of the WOTUS rule. The court disagreed, concluding that WOTUS does not establish an “effluent limitation” nor does it result in the issuance or denial of a permit as argued by the government. The court recognized that it would likely be more efficient and uniform for such challenges to be heard by an appellate court, but that would require a rewriting of the statute.
WOTUS uncertainty remains
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals with an order to dismiss the WOTUS petitions before that court, which consisted of all appellate cases challenging the rule that were previously transferred to the Sixth Circuit by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Note that the Sixth Circuit had issued a nationwide stay of the WOTUS rule in 2015 pending determination of whether the rule was a valid exercise of agency authority. That stay will presumably disappear with the Sixth Circuit’s dismissal of the case, but some claim that the Sixth Circuit could seek to continue to enforce the nationwide stay. A federal district court in North Dakota had previously issued an injunction against the WOTUS rule in North Dakota and a dozen other states, so that injunction would continue to prevent implementation of the rule in those states if the Sixth Circuit removes its stay.
Further complicating the status of the WOTUS rule are the actions taken by the Trump administration, which issued a proposed rule last November to delay the rule’s effective date to 2020 and a second proposal last February to replace WOTUS with the rule that was in place previously while the EPA develops a new definition of WOTUS. The EPA has not finalized either of those rules. The federal district courts with WOTUS cases currently before them could choose to stay their cases pending the current administration’s rulemaking process. Alternatively, one of the federal district courts could issue a nationwide injunction against the rule.
Consistent with its history, WOTUS remains unclear. Agricultural interests will have to continue to wait and see what happens next.
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.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Assoc., Agricultural & Resource Law Program
We often receive questions about the status of industrial hemp as an agricultural crop in Ohio. Historically, growing industrial hemp has been controversial in the United States because of its close relationship to the marijuana plant—both are members of the same species. Plants used for industrial hemp, however, have a much lower amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) than marijuana and do not have the intoxicating qualities of marijuana plants. Uses for industrial hemp are numerous; ranging from fabrics, to car parts, to bedding for animals. Because of potential usefulness, Congress authorized the growing of industrial hemp in individual states for “purposes of research” in the 2014 Farm Bill.
The 2014 Farm Bill and industrial hemp
The 2014 Farm Bill included a section codified at 7 U.S.C. § 5940 that allows industrial hemp to be grown under certain circumstances. Specifically, industrial hemp can be grown in a state if:
- It is grown for research purposes;
- The research is conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research; and
- State law permits the growth of industrial hemp.
The federal law only permits hemp to be grown, cultivated, studied, and marketed under the guidance of institutions of higher education located in the state or the state department of agriculture. Furthermore, the state must certify and register the sites permitted to grow industrial hemp because any substance containing THC is a Schedule I controlled substance under 21 U.S.C. § 812 (c). This means that without a license issued by a state that allows industrial hemp to be grown for research, someone in possession of the plant would be violating federal drug law.
It is also important to note that under the federal law, “industrial hemp” is defined as the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a THC concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. Any concentration over that amount is not legal. Even those plants with a THC concentration less than or equal to 0.3 percent are illegal unless the grower has a state license.
State action on industrial hemp research
Since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, 26 states have implemented legislation allowing industrial hemp research or pilot programs. Ohio is not one of these states, but all of the states bordering Ohio have passed laws allowing industrial hemp research. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a compilation of the state laws here.
Kentucky is an example of a state that is carrying out an industrial hemp pilot program. The program, codified in the Kentucky Revised Statutes §§ 260.850-260.869, allows universities, the state department of agriculture, and those who hold a license from the department of agriculture “to study methods of cultivating, processing, or marketing industrial hemp.” In order to obtain a license, a person must give the Kentucky Department of Agriculture both the legal description and the GPS coordinates of the area where they will grow industrial hemp. Furthermore, applicants for licenses must agree in writing to allow the State to enter the premises for inspection, and receive a yearly background check. Any convicted felon or person with a “drug-related misdemeanor” is barred from becoming licensed.
By implementing this industrial hemp program under state law, Kentucky has stated that it intends to be at the “forefront” of the industry. The state hopes to be in a position to profit from industrial hemp if and when the federal government removes the restrictions on growing and selling industrial hemp. Information from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is here and here.
Will the U.S. soon allow hemp to be legally grown as a crop? A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last July, H.R. 3530, calls for industrial hemp to be removed from the federal definition of marijuana, which would in turn remove it from the list of illegal controlled substances. A quick search on Congress’ website reveals that similar bills have been introduced many times in the past but have not garnered sufficient support. The possibility that the current proposal will gain enough traction to pass is therefore slim. But it is possible that continued research could prove the value of industrial hemp as an agricultural crop, which could eventually lead to less regulation in the future. Given Ohio’s lack of legislative interest in allowing industrial hemp research, Ohio farmers may be at a disadvantage if that day arrives.
For more information
Our colleague Harrison Pittman, Director of the National Agricultural Law Center, presented a webinar on industrial hemp and it's recorded here. A Congressional Research Service report on "Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity" is available here. A recent article on hemp by Farm and Dairy is available here.
The Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill today that should make it easier to plug unused oil and gas wells in Ohio. The legislation also proposes a significant increase in the amount of funds available for doing so, from 14% to 45% of the state’s Oil and Gas Well Fund.
Under the proposed law, a landowner would be able to report an idle and orphaned well to the Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources, who must inspect the well within 30 days and classify the well as distressed high priority, moderate medium priority or maintenance low priority for purposes of sealing the well or restoring the land surface at the well site. The legislation also lightens several procedures the Chief currently must follow before plugging a well, such as determining ownership and legal interests in the well, the oil and gas lease related to the well, and any equipment at the well. The Chief would not be required to search beyond 40 years to determine ownership and legal interests. Several procedures regarding the contracts entered into for restoration or plugging of a well would also change.
House Bill 225, proposed by Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta) now goes to the Ohio Senate for consideration. Read more about the bill here.