WASHINGTON - The nation's farmers could face
severe restrictions on the use of pesticides as environmentalists,
spurred by a favorable ruling from a judge in Washington state, want the
courts to force federal regulators to protect endangered species from
the ill effects of agricultural chemicals.
The eight-year-old ruling by a federal judge in
Seattle required the National Marine Fisheries Service and the
Environmental Protection Agency to review whether 54 pesticides,
herbicides and fungicides were jeopardizing troubled West Coast salmon
The agencies moved recently to restrict the use of three of
the chemicals, including a widely used one with the trade name Sevin,
near bodies of water that flow into salmon-bearing streams, and they're
considering restrictions on 12 additional chemicals. The Washington
State Department of Agriculture says such restrictions would prevent
pesticide use on 75 percent of the state's farmland.
A federal judge in California has issued a similar ruling that
involves 11 endangered and threatened species and 75 pesticides in the
San Francisco Bay area.
Rather than continuing to file piecemeal
lawsuits, the Center for Biological Diversity says it will file a
broader suit this summer that involves nearly 400 pesticides and almost
900 species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
state officials said the restrictions that could result from that
lawsuit could affect agricultural production significantly in at least
Dan Newhouse, the director of the Washington State
Department of Agriculture, who farms hops, apples, cherries and other
row crops on 600 irrigated acres in the Yakima Valley, said that if the
courts ordered far-reaching restrictions, "farmers across the country
will have significantly fewer tools at their disposal to manage plant
pests and disease."
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has
estimated that 20 to 40 percent of global crop production is lost
annually because of weeds, pests and disease.
agriculture chemicals have threatened to sue the EPA, alleging that the
agency's method of crafting restrictions is riddled with "major flaws"
and the industry wasn't asked to participate.
Newhouse said there
was so much uncertainty that it was impossible to tell how widespread or
dramatic the effects of tighter restrictions might be. In Washington
state, however, he said, "I am coming to believe every farmer would be
impacted one way or another."
The Endangered Species Act, which
was signed into law in 1973, requires federal agencies that are
contemplating any action that could "jeopardize" listed species to
consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine
Fisheries Service and come up with a plan to alleviate or lessen the
effects. The National Marine Fisheries Service has jurisdiction over
some fish species, such as salmon, and the Fish and Wildlife Service
covers everything else.
The EPA has jurisdiction over pesticides, but environmentalists said it had largely ignored the endangered species requirements.
began to change in 2002, when U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in
Seattle ruled that the EPA had violated provisions of the Endangered
Species Act by not consulting with the National Marine Fisheries
Services about how the use of pesticides and other chemicals could
affect the more than two dozen salmon runs that are protected under the
act in Washington state, Oregon, California and Idaho.
"Such consultation is mandatory and not subject to unbridled agency discretion," Coughenour wrote.
years of study, the fisheries service concluded in 2009 that three
pesticides - carbaryl (Sevin), carbofuran (sold as Furadan, Curater and
other brand names) and methomyl (sold under a variety of names) - were
jeopardizing salmon runs and suggested that the EPA ban their use within
1,000 feet of salmon habitats and impose other restrictions that
involved aerial spraying, wind speed and weather.
essentially agreed, but the manufacturers of the three chemicals say
they won't adopt new labeling requirements for their products
voluntarily, and they've threatened their own lawsuit.
The EPA has a 2012 deadline to finish studying the other chemicals and adopt restrictions on those that threaten salmon.
years and years and years, EPA didn't do these consultations on
pesticides," said Steve Mashuda of the Seattle office of Earthjustice,
the law firm that brought the 2002 suit on behalf of the Washington
Toxics Coalition. "Those days are over."
Jeff Miller, a spokesman
for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that until now, his group
and others had approached the issue species by species and region by
"We are trying to get EPA to do it nationally," Miller said.
He said that even now, the EPA continued to drag its feet.
"I know Obama has a lot on his plate right now, but the EPA is still not aggressively taking on this issue," he said.
of the Washington State Department of Agriculture said that state
agriculture directors across the country were worried.
consultation process between the EPA and the National Marine Fisheries
Service and Fish and Wildlife Service needs to be overhauled, and that
could entail changes in the Endangered Species Act and the Federal
Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, Newhouse said.
addition, he said, the EPA needs to examine recent studies such as one
Washington state conducted that found only low levels of pesticides in
five of the state's watersheds. The study said the pesticide levels
weren't expected to affect salmon, though concentrations at some sites
could harm aquatic species that salmon eat.
The companies that
manufacture the three pesticides at the heart of the controversy argue
that if the chemicals are used properly they won't jeopardize endangered
or threatened species.
The industry also has argued that
pesticides help maintain habitat for endangered species by controlling
the spread of noxious and harmful weeds, pointing to endangered orchids
that have thrived in various rights-of-ways that have been sprayed with
EPA officials didn't respond to e-mail and telephone
requests for comment, but they've notified the manufacturers that if
they don't agree to the new labeling restrictions voluntarily, the
agency will pursue "administrative procedures" against them.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are tracking the controversy, but no legislative fix has been introduced.
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