New policies aim to curb pesticide use and abuse

I’m willing to stand corrected, but I cannot recall a time when there has been so much activity related to the use and abuse of pesticides around water.

In a story written for Monday’s Kitsap Sun, I reported about the permitting activity to comply with the Clean Water Act at both the state and federal levels. I did not, however, get into some significant and surprising activities related to the Endangered Species Act, which I will discuss here in a moment.

I think it’s becoming fairly well recognized that chemicals successful at killing target plants and animals may have unwanted and uncertain effects on plants and animals that we would like to protect. Unfortunately, state and federal regulations have not always kept pace with scientific findings.

The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a general permit to govern the use of pesticides to control aquatic weeds and algae, aquatic nuisance animal control, mosquito control and forest canopy pest control. The action results from court rulings, which have found that the use of pesticides falls under the Clean Water Act, which prohibits pollutants from being discharged into waterways without an NPDES permit. (NPDES is National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.)

Because of court decisions in our region of the country, Washington Department of Ecology has been involved in issuing general aquatic pesticide permits for several years. A new permit is now being written to control invasive species, while permits for aquatic weeds and mosquito control are being updated. (See Monday’s story for details.)

Before the court rulings, EPA had managed its pesticides — aquatic and otherwise — under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Even that program is coming under new scrutiny, as the EPA has been re-registering pesticides and increasing public involvement for new pesticide uses.

What I did not cover in Monday’s story are ongoing pesticide activities related to protections for salmon and other threatened and endangered species.

The EPA is increasing its pressure on pesticide manufacturers to change the labels to restrict the use of certain pesticides around salmon streams. The action stems from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups under Endangered Species Act. The EPA was forced to consult with National Marine Fisheries Service, which proposed that buffers be established to keep harmful levels of pesticides out of streams. (Check out the biological opinions website.)

In a September announcement, EPA said it would move forward on imposing the buffers as instructions to pesticide users, although attorney Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice tells me that the EPA’s buffers are not as large as proposed by NMFS, based on a “misinterpretation” of the biological opinion — so there’s another issue to be worked out. See letter to Jim Lecky of NMFS from Richard Keigwin of EPA (PDF 892 kb).

Anyway, the pesticide manufacturers responded with a letter in May (PDF 1.2 mb) saying they would not voluntarily change the labels, because they believe the buffers are not justified by scientific evidence.

The ball is back in EPA’s court on how to deal with the pesticide manufacturers. Agency officials could start through a cancellation or re-registration process for the pesticides in question to gain the restrictions required or they might find other interim or emergency measures.

The chemicals for which biological opinions have been issued are Chlorpyrifos, Diazinon and Malathion in the first group and Carbaryl, Carbofuran and Methomyl in the second. Steve Mashuda says another group of pesticides will be addressed in a biological opinion to be issued this fall, with a draft coming out next month.

On another front involving pesticides and the Endangered Species Act, the Center for Biological Diversity in January filed a notice of intent to sue (PDF 596 kb) the EPA for “failing to adequately evaluate and regulate nearly 400 pesticides harmful to hundreds of endangered species throughout the nation.” (See CBD’s press release.)

The letter references 887 threatened and endangered species that could be harmed by pesticides. This case, which builds on the salmon ruling as well as CBD’s own victory in the San Francisco Bay area, will be interesting to watch with respect to uncertain legal, technical and political developments.

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