A provision in the 2018 farm bill would allow the EPA to approve pesticides without undertaking reviews now required to protect endangered species.
Environmental groups say the provision is an “unprecedented” attack that could have lasting ramifications for ecosystems across the nation.
The bill would allow the EPA to skip consultations with agencies that include the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversee the implementation of Endangered Species Act protections.
“This removes the requirement to bring in the expert agencies,” said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program. She said it would gut protections for endangered species.
In a December 2017 report, the National Marine Fisheries Service said pesticides like chlorpyrifos, malathion, and diazinon threaten a number of marine animals, including some that are protected, as well as the predators that prey on them.
“Current application rates and application methods are expected to produce aquatic concentrations of all three pesticides that are likely to harm aquatic species as well as contaminate their designated critical habitats,” the report said, adding that species and their prey that live in shallow waters close to pesticide use sites are expected to be most at risk.
‘A poison pill’
“It’s a poison-pill rider in the most literal and unfortunate way,” said Jordan Giaconia, federal policy associate for defense at the Sierra Club. It takes just one harmful chemical to be injected into the ecosystem to cause widespread damage, he said. “The ramifications are pretty far reaching.”
Some types of protected salmon, butterflies and all kinds of pollinators could be harmed by toxic pesticides applied without proper review, advocates worry.
But Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee see the language as a “commonsense reforms” to an “onerous and conflicting” consultation process that needs to be modernized, according to a summary provided by the panel’s majority.
“We're trying to streamline that process,” House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters. “EPA doesn't have the resources to do a species-by-species deal, so we're trying to figure out a way to protect species, but also being able to get the crop protection things [pesticides] in place. The current system works to the advantage of people who don't want anything to happen.”
Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The committee is scheduled to mark up the bill on Wednesday.
If the bill passes with the pesticide provision, it would be a victory for agriculture trade groups that have pushed hard in recent months for the language to be included in the five-year farm bill, and for chemical manufacturers like Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. that have petitioned for less-stringent pesticide regulations.
More than 60 agriculture groups in January wrote a letter urging Agriculture Committee leaders to include the provision in the bill, saying the current review and permitting requirements are “redundant” and provide no additional environmental benefit, but instead impose additional costs on farms and businesses.
Environmentalists, however, see parallels between the language in the measure, the lobbying efforts by the chemical industries and actions of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the provision “essentially codifies” a request by Dow Chemical for Pruitt to ignore the harmful effects of pesticides on endangered species and to gut their protections.
In April 2017, Wiley Rein LLP, a law firm that represents several chemical companies, including Dow AgroSciences LLC; Makhteshim Agan of North America Inc., also known as Adama; and FMC Corp., wrote to the Trump administration asking it to disregard an EPA report that had concluded that certain pesticides would be harmful to imperiled species. The letter was sent to the Commerce Department, the EPA, the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department.
The EPA in January 2017, at the end of the Obama administration, released a report that found that pesticides like chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion could harm endangered species near and around where they were applied.
In March 2017, under newly the confirmed Pruitt, the EPA scuttled a process initiated by the Obama administration to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a known neurotoxin that has been found to be harmful to farm workers and has been linked to development issues in newborn babies. The pesticide, which is banned for residential use and on tomatoes, is still widely used in farming of other vegetables and fruits.
“This is a pretty unprecedented attack on the Endangered Species Act . . . it’s unfortunately not surprising,” Giaconia said of the farm bill provision. “It falls in line with Scott Pruitt’s efforts to undermine scientifically based environmental protections.”
According the Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection.
While both Democrats and Republicans agree that the statute is due for an overhaul, they remain at odds over its implementation, which the GOP views as burdensome to farmers, loggers and businesses. Democrats and conservationists view the statute as the most important action ever taken to protect imperiled plants and animals.
Conservationists worry that not only would the language in the farm bill harm protected species, it would also allow chemical manufactures to dodge liability for the damage done by their products to those imperiled animals and plants.
Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.