Ohio Supreme Court: OEPA Must Follow Rulemaking Procedure For New TMDLs Before Submitting To US EPA

On March 24, 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its decision in Fairfield Cty. Bd. of Commrs. v. Nally, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-991, in which the court held that --

  1. A total maximum daily load established by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) pursuant to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, 33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq. (the Clean Water Act), is a rule that is subject to the requirements of R.C. Chapter 119 of the Ohio Administrative Procedure Act; and
  2. The OEPA must follow the rulemaking procedure in R.C. Chapter 119 before submitting a total maximum daily load (TMDL) to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for its approval and before the TMDL may be implemented in a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

This case involved a challenge brought by Fairfield County regarding a renewed NPDES permit issued by the OEPA back in 2006 to a wastewater treatment place that discharges into Blacklick Creek.  The renewed permit included new phosphorus limitations that were not previously included in the county's permit. The county contended that it should have had a 'full and fair' opportunity to be heard and the right to review and challenge the TMDL before it was submitted to the USEPA for approval. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed affirming the judgment of the court of appeals that had vacated the NPDES phosphorus limitations but for different reasons.

The court of appeals and the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC) before it had both determined that OEPA had a right to impose the new limits in a renewed NPDES permit without following Ohio's Administrative Procedures Act (the APA) but vacated the limits and remanded to the OEPA for further consideration due to the OEPA's failure to consider with the new permit limits on phosphorus were technologically feasible and economically feasible as required by R.C 6111.03(J)(3).

The OEPA denies that the TMDL is a rule and characterizes it as simply guidance. The court has previously held that the Ohio EPA "cannot regulate through 'guidelines' that are in reality rules requiring formal promulgation" (Jackson Cty. Environmental  Commt. v. Schregardus, 95 Ohio App.3d 527, 642 N.E.2d 1142 (10th Dist. 1994)). When reviewing guidelines or other 'documents' the court has long emphasized that it will look at such guideline or document's effect not how an agency or other governmental entity chooses to characterize it.

When determining that the establishment a new TMDL is a rule requiring the OEPA to follow Ohio's APA, the court notes that it creates new legal obligations, and the standards have general and uniform effect even though they will not be implemented against a point source (such as a wastewater treatment facility) until an NPDES permit is issued.  The court further noted that the USEPA itself is required to proceed through rulemaking when it establishes its own TMDLs and other state supreme courts (ID; SC) have addressed this issue, finding that TMDLs must be promulgated as rules before becoming the basis for discharge limitations in a permit.

Justices O'Donnell and Kennedy, while concurring in the result, did so on the grounds held by ERAC and the court of appeals. In the concurrence prepared by Justice O'Donnell, he noted that the OEPA has issued 1,761 TMDLs, including 132 TMDLs for phosphorus.  Since the OEPA did not follow the Ohio APA for any of these TMDLS, this court's decision for Fairfield County essentially invalidates all of these TMDLs and opens up all of the permits for challenges.

I sympathize with Justices O'Donnell's and Kennedy's concern over the repercussions of this decision. However, in a time when private citizens, including private business, are being subjected to an ever increasing rules and regulations from all levels of government, it's important to all of us that the government is made to follow the rules as well. Only time will tell what the fallout is from this decision.

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