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House Farm Bill Seeks to Lift Crucial Environmental Safeguards

by Josh Vincent — last modified Jul 17, 2012 02:40 PM

Sections 10016 and 10017 of the House version of the farm bill would undermine longstanding safeguards designed to protect water, people, and wildlife from the impacts of pesticides.

Section 10016 of the House farm bill presents a serious threat to wildlife and the environment by essentially blocking federal agencies from prescribing measures to protect endangered species from pesticides. This has large implications for Endangered Species Act (ESA) enforcement and could be disastrous for species that are already compromised due to  pesticides and other toxic threats. 

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consult with federal wildlife agencies to mitigate the harms that registered pesticides pose to threatened and endangered species. However, EPA has failed to do this adequately, so most pesticides are not currently regulated to properly protect endangered wildlife. Along the West Coast, such pesticide use is harming salmonid species which are listed as endangered or threatened.

Nearly a decade ago, a federal court ordered EPA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) concerning the effects of 37 heavy-handed pesticides and herbicides on listed salmon. So far NMFS has finalized six biological opinions (BiOps) that cover more than half of these 37 pesticides.

In the BiOps, fisheries scientists have concluded use of one or more of these pesticides is jeopardizing the continued existence of nearly every population of protected salmon. The BiOps also spell out mitigation measures to reduce these harms. Among these mitigation measures are buffer zones for aerial and ground application of these pesticides. Though NMFS identified these protections as many as four years ago, EPA has yet to implement any of the necessary measures.

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – the statute by which pesticides are registered – is not nearly enough to protect endangered species on its own. U.S. Geological Survey studies have consistently found high levels of pesticides in streams – sometimes at more than 1,000 times levels deemed safe for fish. In the more general FIFRA process, EPA does not adequately consider the real-world impacts of pesticides to species already besieged by other threats.

The Endangered Species Act picks up where FIFRA leaves off and ensures protection of specific imperiled species.

In addition to jeopardizing endangered species, pesticides pose serious threats to human health, especially the health of young children. Recent studies, for example, have linked prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides to lower IQ and autism. Many of these chemicals are also powerful endocrine disruptors that have developmental and reproductive effects in humans. 

While pesticides in our waterways and air affect everyone, farm workers and local communities are often at the greatest risk.

Already numerous alternatives to these pesticides exist. Some farmers avoid the use of the most heavy-handed pesticides because they kill beneficial insects and can lead to increased pest problems over time.  Claims that the no-spray buffers for certain pesticides that NMFS has recommended would “fallow” that land are simply untrue. Less harmful pesticides or other effective pest management techniques can still be used in those areas.

Last year the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) convened a review process at the request of the EPA and the federal wildlife agencies.  This review aims to help resolve internal agency differences on pesticide consultations.

This NAS process is a welcome development, but it should not be used as a delay tactic – as Section 10016 does – to stall mitigation measures for the worst-of-the-worst pesticides covered by the salmon/pesticides BiOps.

Section 10017 of the House farm bill axes all Clean Water Act protections for pesticides that are sprayed directly into waterways. This would result in the direct application of pesticides into streams and rivers without any oversight, as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – the law under which pesticides are registered – does not require tracking of such pesticide applications. 

Already more than one thousand waterways are impaired by pesticide contamination, and many more may be polluted but are not sampled.  Pesticides discharged into our waterways can kill or cause severe reproductive and developmental harm and cancer in fish and amphibians. The toxins can also move up the food chain, potentially accumulating in people who eat fish.  Section 10017 will result in even more poisons going into the very waters in which we swim, from which we fish, and from which we get our drinking water. 

Monitoring where pesticides are being applied directly to waterways – as required by the Clean Water Act’s permitting system – can alert the Environmental Protection Agency to the cause of water quality impairments and can speed the clean-up of impaired waters, putting fewer lives at risk from exposure to pesticides.  In the absence of such monitoring the public is susceptible, not knowing whether a pesticide has been applied to a given water body, and raising the risk of duplicative applications.

A Clean Water Act pesticide general permit that took effect in November 2011 simply lays out commonsense practices for applying pesticides directly to waters that already fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.  This permit has no significant effect on farming practices. The permit in no way affects land applications of pesticides for the purpose of controlling pests.  Irrigation return flows and agricultural storm water runoff do not require permits, even when they contain pesticides.  Existing agricultural exemptions in the Clean Water Act remain.

Further, the pesticide general permit allows for spraying to combat vector-borne diseases.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the permit “provides that pesticide applications are covered automatically under the permit and may be performed immediately for any declared emergency pest situations.”

To protect and restore our nation’s waters and prevent further pollution to one of our country’s most precious resources, Congress must not take away the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to require Clean Water Act permitting for direct applications of pesticides into our waters.

 

For more information, please contact NCAP's partners at the following organizations:

Marjorie Mulhall, Earthjustice (202-745-5204, mmulhall@earthjustice.org)

Alex Adams, Defenders of Wildlife (202-772-0270, aadams@defenders.org)

Elly Pepper, Natural Resources Defense Council (202-717-8193, epepper@nrdc.org)