What’s Behind the Latest Lawsuit on Lake Erie’s Water Quality?

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

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 storm water 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.

At 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.

As relief, the Plaintiffs asks the court to declare that EPA has violated its duty under the CWA and to require EPA to approve or disapprove OEPA’s impaired waters list within thirty days of the court’s order.   The full complaint filed in the lawsuit is available here.

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

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