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Tug of War

by Josh Vincent — last modified Dec 21, 2011 05:03 PM
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2011's story of environmental groups, chemical companies, and the battle for science.

Tug of War

Stepping back, the whole thing looks a bit like tug of war. On one side there are groups like NCAP demanding that the environment, wildlife and human health be protected. On the other there are pesticide manufacturers working constantly to undermine environmental laws and threaten the governmental authorities that attempt to enforce them. In the middle are groups like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), overworked, seemingly well intentioned, weakened by budgetary shortfalls, intimidated and swayed by political and corporate interests, and thus persistently unable to achieve real health standards or even meet the minimums required by law.

Failure to meet one such legal requirement – checking with wildlife experts before approving pesticides that could be harmful to endangered fish and wildlife -  is what led us to first engage the EPA in a lawsuit years ago. We knew that certain pesticides threatened the survival of endangered salmon and we knew that consultations on the matter had not taken place as a part of EPA’s registration process. Demanding that the consultations be carried out, as the law requires, seemed a good strategy to call attention to the impacts of these chemicals and perhaps change how they are used. That was ten years ago.

Now, after much back and forth and dragging of feet, the first of these consultations have happened. The results: wildlife experts found that many common pesticides threaten the survival of endangered salmon. It’s been a long time coming, so here’s our requisite, “We told you so.”

The struggle became more compelling in 2011 as wildlife scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) entered the fray. In evaluating 12 pesticides, NMFS went beyond the comparatively superficial pesticide review conducted by EPA by also examining the risks of inert ingredients, synergistic effects from various pesticide combinations likely to occur in the environment, endocrine disrupting effects, and more. It was rigorous science, and promised to restore some faith in the integrity of the process.

Enter Goliath: pesticide manufacturers proved that they would stop at nothing to maintain sales of their products, no matter how harmful they proved to be. Throughout 2011, they stalled the process, flouted government attempts to limit how certain pesticides are used, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to create new loopholes in several major environmental laws, and attempted at every turn to invalidate the scientific findings that revealed how harmful their products were. When that all failed, they sued NMFS.

Thankfully, we shut them down there as well. With help from partner groups and very dedicated lawyers at Earthjustice, we refuted their untruths, protected good science, and successfully fought to protect an important process from overt corruption. On October 31, 2011, a federal judge ruled to uphold the new scientific findings, tossing out the claims made by companies who would sacrifice anything but their profits.

On behalf of the staff at NCAP, thank you greatly for supporting our work in this critical area. We couldn’t have done it without you. We urge you to continue with us as we move forward to help craft better policies that reduce the use of these toxic pesticides.