EPA Proposes Significant Changes to Endangered Species-Pesticide Analysis Methods
by Sharon Selvaggio, Healthy Wildlife & Water Program Director
We need your help.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to weaken their evaluation protocol with a revised, weakened method for conducting “Biological Evaluations,” which is a first step in determining if endangered species might be adversely affected by pesticides. NCAP has worked for years to protect salmon and steelhead from pesticide pollution, and we are disturbed by the EPA weakening these procedures – which will result in unsafe pesticide pollution levels being ignored.
The new methodology does NOT comply with endangered species procedures that have been in place for decades – and also does not comply with 2013 National Academy of Sciences recommendations on assessing pesticide risk to endangered species.
Some major flaws of the new methodology are as follows:
1) It creates a new requirement to use estimates of “usage data” to exclude pesticide use from “Action Areas.”
The EPA has always conducted its risk assessments using maximal labeled rates, because the pesticide label sets the upper bound on allowable rates. Industry has argued for EPA to substitute “usage data” instead, claiming that pesticides are only rarely applied at maximal rates. (Unfortunately, we have nothing but anecdotal evidence for this claim, but EPA is forging ahead anyway.) Now the EPA proposes to use industry “surveys” of usage data to pare down the areas that would be otherwise identified from labels and use site maps. Such a move is contrary to the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, which recognized the limitations of existing usage data, and called it an “inaccurate input” not suitable for endangered species assessments.
Reliable usage data is comprehensive (i.e. required), reported in a timely fashion based on real-time records, and reports pesticide use by date, use site (e.g. crop), amount and location (at a meaningful resolution, such as by section, as in the California system). In addition, the methods of the data collection are publicly reported and open to scrutiny and error analysis.
Only one state, California, comes close to having this kind of data. And even California does not require usage reporting outside of agriculture. No matter – outside of California, EPA plans to use unpublished proprietary data kept by the chemical industry that is based on user surveys– and summarized at a state level.
Not only does this proprietary source not allow for analysis by amount, location, date, and use site, but the methodology for the industry data collection is unknown. The survey data does not include non-ag uses, doesn’t cover all states, and, where available, is summarized at a state scale. Using such data as a primary screen violates EPA’s charge to use the “best available” scientific and commercial data.
Observers who have tested this approach have already noted that relying on this data would excludes large areas from analysis (because the proprietary data source reports no usage) even where US Geological Survey water quality monitoring shows numerous pesticide detections across broad geographic areas. Under the new method, in areas where “usage data” reports no use, EPA will delete the area from the “Action Area” even if the area contains both labeled use sites and the species. This may ultimately result in wide swaths of important habitat being subjected to harmful levels of pesticide use.
Tell EPA that it must use labeled use sites – not unvetted proprietary sources – to determine the Action Area!
2) Key definitions used in the consultation process are misrepresented or redefined.
In its proposed methods, the EPA ignores decades-old definitions of key consultation terms, including: may affect, likely to adversely affect, direct effects and indirect effects. In one case the EPA even ignores existing regulation to substitute its own idea of what these terms should mean. For example, EPA has decided impacts to prey are “indirect effects,” which is a complete misrepresentation of the definition of indirect effects in regulation.
This is analogous to a car dealer replacing a Dodge vehicle’s hood ornament with a Toyota hood ornament and calling it a Toyota-brand vehicle. Or like Boeing selling critical safety features only as an “add-on.”
Tell the EPA to stick with the Consultation Handbook definitions!
3) In the new method, EPA wants to artificially limit the area of impact around a pesticide use to a maximum of 2600 feet.
In the real world, after pesticides are applied, the wind blows or rain falls. Wind and rain move pesticides, sometimes dissolved in water, sometimes as vapor in the air, and sometimes attached to sediment. Wild weather can move water and rain substantial distances. To illustrate, the accompanying satellite photo vividly shows sediment plumes off the coast of Florida after a hurricane, extending offshore practically half the width of the state. Any pesticides bound to that sediment may be carried along, especially those pesticides that are “persistent” (not broken down quickly).
Florida, Oct. 14, 1999. When Hurricane Irene passed over Florida in 1999, the heavy rainfall over land caused extensive amounts of runoff that first entered Florida's rivers which then dumped the runoff water, containing lots of sediment, into the Atlantic Ocean.
(Credit: NASA Visible Earth.)
And pesticides don’t just move with sediment – dissolved pesticides also move with flowing water. Manufacturers and EPA know this, because some irrigation weed killers are promoted as effective in killing plants 25 miles downstream of the application site.
Yet EPA’s new method will ignore downstream transport of pesticides in water. The 2600-foot limitation is based on EPA’s drift models, not runoff data and models. So EPA will model drift but will ignore any drift beyond 2,600 feet. And despite years of finding pesticides in streams far downstream of the sites where they were applied, EPA will only estimate runoff within 30 meters of the application site (about 100 feet) and will ignore any movement of pesticides in water beyond that distance.
Tell EPA to stop pretending that downstream transport doesn’t exist. Our fish depend on it!
Outlined above are just a few of the problems NCAP has identified in the new methodology.
Please take the time to let the EPA know that this revised method is dangerous and will result in more pesticide harm to endangered and threatened fish and wildlife! Comments are due by July 1, 2019, by 11:59 pm Eastern Time.
 National Research Council. 2013. Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18344
 Ibid, p. 70.
 Hawkes, T. R. DeWitt, S. Hecht and T. Hooper. 2018. Use versus Usage: A critical consideration for modeling pesticide exposure to federally-listed threatened and endangered species. Presentation to SETAC Conference November 2018.