WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 — The Bush administration is requesting exemptions for 54 companies and trade groups that want to continue using a pesticide scheduled to be phased out by 2005 under a treaty to protect the ozone layer, officials said today.
All but two applications have been approved in whole or in part by the Environmental Protection Agency. The requests come from businesses like tomato and strawberry growers and operators of golf courses who say they need to use the chemical, methyl bromide, and have no alternative, the officials said.
Scientists have identified (methyl bromide) as a potent ozone destroyer and estimate that it accounts for 7 percent of the ozone erosion.
The exemption requests, to be submitted this week to the Ozone Secretariat at the United Nations, drew criticism from environmental groups, which said the environmental agency was undermining the Montreal Protocol of 1987.
The protocol is generally regarded as one of the most effective environmental pacts. With 160 signers, it set a timetable for nations to phase out compounds that damage the stratospheric ozone layer that protects Earth from ultraviolet radiation.
The administration had indicated it was considering the exemptions. Today was the first time it specified the number that it would seek and the minimum amount of pesticide use it says would be necessary.
The American requests would result in an increase in the use of methyl bromide, to 39 percent of the baseline set in 1991. The treaty now limits consumption in the United States to 30 percent for 2003 and 2004.
Fourteen other nations are also seeking exemptions for methyl bromide.
Methyl bromide, the last chemical in commercial use that the protocol phases out, is a toxic gas that sterilizes soil before planting and kills pests in stored food products. Scientists have identified it as a potent ozone destroyer and estimate that it accounts for 7 percent of the ozone erosion.
Farmers, beekeepers, cultivators of tobacco seedlings and others say they have no alternative for effectively killing weeds and pests. In their applications, they said they had explored alternatives and would face "significant market disruption" if not granted exemptions.
John Pemberton, chief of staff of the air and radiation program at the environmental agency, said the government had spent $146 million in searching for a benign compound to be used instead of methyl bromide. Numerous groups are seeking relief from the ban, including food processors, turf and sod growers and vegetable producers.
"Unfortunately," Mr. Pemberton said, "it has not resulted in an alternative that can step in for the crops. The research has not resulted in a replacement product."
The agency is applying for two-year exemptions for varying amounts of the chemical. The Montreal Protocol allows for exemptions beyond 2005, but they have to obtain approval from the Ozone Secretariat.
Environmental groups say the Bush administration is undercutting the treaty and setting a poor example. They note that safer alternatives have been found for numerous other compounds listed in the treaty.
"They've had a decade of advance warning," said David Doniger, policy director of the climate center of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Millions have been spent on researching alternatives."
The United States is the largest consumer of methyl bromide, accounting for 25 percent of its global consumption. It is produced here by the Albemarle Corporation of Richmond, Va., as well as by companies in Israel and China.
Mr. Doniger said the administration was reacting to pressure from industries that are resisting change.
"The sore thumb in all this is methyl bromide," he said. "It's the only user community that has continued to fight to change the rules every step of the way."
Officials at the environmental agency said they supported the protocol and planned to restrict use of the chemical in subsequent years.
"The U.S. takes its commitment to the Montreal Protocol and the needs of the agricultural community very seriously," the agency said in a statement to be released on Friday. "Our action on critical use exemptions is good for the environment and U.S. agriculture."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company