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EPA's Failure to Publicize Drinking Water Data Prompts Rethinking in Agency, Congress

by Danielle Ivory

There is some evidence that Congress -- and the Environmental Protection Agency -- are rethinking their policies on a commonly used weed-killer after disclosures that the EPA failed to notify the public about high levels of the herbicide in drinking water.

(flickr photo by daniel.sahlin; Creative Commons 2.0) As the Investigative Fund revealed last week, the herbicide atrazine has been found at levels above the federal safety limit in drinking water in at least four states. The chemical has been studied for its potential link to breast cancer, prostate cancer, and birth defects, and the EPA considers it to be a potential endocrine disruptor. It is banned in the European Union.

The Natural Resources Defense Council published a report on atrazine levels last week, and the New York Times weighed in with an article on growing questions about the herbicide's health effects.

The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee has asked the EPA for a comprehensive briefing next week on the agency's failure to publicize results of tests that showed high levels of atrazine. The committee also is asking the EPA to develop a specific plan for reporting this data to the public in the future.

A senior committee staffer confirmed today that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and her staff plan to meet with “key players” at the EPA next week to discuss their data on atrazine.

“This is a top priority for us,” the staff member said. “We’re not going to shy away from this. People have a right to know what is in their drinking water, particularly when the EPA’s data suggests that there could be a health concern.”

For five years, the EPA has been collecting weekly tests of drinking water in about 150 watersheds, primarily in the Midwest, where farmers spray the herbicide on cornfields and other crops. The agency, however, never acted on the results. Nor had it ever published the data -- until tonight. EPA officials say they have now decided to make the test results available on their Web site.

The Investigative Fund obtained the data this summer through a public records request and published it last week.

In a statement to the I-Fund tonight, the EPA said the change in policy is important "because now people can get the data much easier" without going through the "burdensome" process of requesting public records.

The statement from the EPA said: "EPA is taking a hard look at atrazine, including many of the issues you raise. Atrazine is very controversial ... Administrator Jackson has made a commitment to strengthen the Agency's chemical management programs, which she identified as one of her top priorities upon her arrival at the Agency. This includes atrazine. We really want to emphasize that this new team is actively rethinking how to address atrazine."

It’s not only the Senate and EPA that plan to take a look at policy on atrazine. In the House, one congressman is planning to reintroduce legislation to ban the herbicide atrazine in the fall.

Last August, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced a bill (H.R.3399), prohibiting the use, production, sale, importation, or exportation of any pesticide containing atrazine. It died in the health subcommittee last September.

Minh Ta, legislative director for  Ellison, said the congressman is concentrating on the financial crisis and health care, but would reintroduce the bill in the fall. "It’s an issue that the Congressman has been concerned about,” Ta said. “These articles in the Huffington Post reinforce the need to act quickly.”

But Richard Wiles, executive director at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group, said that it will be difficult to garner broad congressional support for tighter atrazine regulation, let alone a ban. “This is the big kahuna,” Wiles said. "Atrazine is one of those pollutants with a fortress of defenders — more so than most other chemicals.”

Wiles said that any attempt to restrict atrazine use would likely be blocked by the House Agriculture Committee, who tend to favor the “pro-pesticide farm lobby and pesticide makers.” The committee is chaired by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.)

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Peterson was the top congressional recipient of campaign contributions from the agricultural services industry (which includes Syngenta Corp) in the 2008 and 2006 election cycles. Peterson's office did not respond to a request for comment.

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