NCBA: Cattle industry makes progress on environmental policy

Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press Scott Yager, chief environmental counsel for National Cattlemen's Beef Association, updates ranchers on federal environmental policy during the Idaho Cattle Association annual convention in Sun Valley on Nov. 12.

There have been some wins and some setbacks for ranchers this year when it comes to federal environmental policy, but it’s moving in the right direction under the Trump administration.

The setbacks can be attributed to the courts and the gains can be credited to regulatory relief from the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Yager, chief environmental counsel for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told ranchers at the Idaho Cattle Association annual convention.

Work remains to finalize the repeal of the waters of the U.S. rule — called WOTUS — expanding EPA and Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act. The rule had been suspended while the agencies worked to replace it, and two federal courts blocked implementation in 24 states.

But a “zombie” WOTUS came back with a South Carolina court deciding the administration failed to comply with rulemaking requirements in suspending the rule — making it law in the 26 states not protected by an injunction, he said.

If approved by Congress, language in a House appropriations bill and the House version of the farm bill would repeal it. If not, the administration is in the process of repealing and replacing it, he said.

“We need a narrow definition closer to traditional navigable waters. We want a rule that’s understandable so producers can go out on their property and know” where the rule applies, he said.

NCBA is fighting WOTUS in courts, in the agencies and in Congress. And a broad swath of industry has banned together in a litigation coalition, he said.

A proposal for a new rule is expected soon. It will ultimately end up in the Supreme Court, but there’s a pretty good chance of winning if it doesn’t have any procedural faults, he said.

On more sure footing is an exclusion for agriculture from reporting livestock emissions to federal agencies under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which came into effect in 1980 to clean up toxic waste sites.

EPA exempted agriculture from reporting livestock emissions under the act, but environmentalists sued and a court vacated the exemption in 2017. NCBA (and others) sought a legislative solution in Congress, resulting in an exemption being included in an omnibus bill signed into law in March.

Without the exemption, the law would have applied to about 200,000 livestock operations and there’s very little data to inform that reporting. Activists oppose the exemption because they want information on those operations to push regulations. CERCLA also requires follow-up reporting a year after the initial report. Such reporting would open the door to citizen lawsuits, he said.

In October, EPA proposed also exempting agriculture from reporting livestock emissions to state and local responders under the Emergency Planning and Community-Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA).

In another positive move, animal waste is no longer one of EPA’s enforcement initiatives.

“We’re back to a standard program of compliance … the cattle industry is out of EPA crosshairs,” he said.

The administration is ready to work with cattle producers rather than against them, he said.

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