Tag Archives: Earthjustice

President’s salmon joke fails to connect with reality

UPDATE, Jan. 27:
Since I first posted this item, Scott Veirs pointed out that the recovery of Atlantic salmon is under the joint jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I was not aware of this, and it could help explain the president’s statement. Thanks, Scott. See below for Scott’s comment and my response.

President Obama made a joke about salmon in his “State of the Union” speech last night, but his statement didn’t ring true to me, so I did some checking.

President Obama delivers State of the Union.White House photo

Obama used salmon as an example of redundancy in government and the need for reorganization. His point was valid about how a confusing number of agencies are involved in salmon and their habitat, But I’m afraid he’s mistaken about who’s in charge when it comes to these migrating fish. Here’s his statement:

“… Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water (laughter). I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked (laughter and applause).“

The truth is the National Marine Fisheries Service is in charge of most salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, no matter where they are. NMFS, of course, is an agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the Department of Commerce.
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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.
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Agreement addresses highway stormwater issues

For older state highways, the method of managing stormwater typically is to dump it directly into ditches and streams. This is the historical approach: get rid of the water as quickly as possible. But, as the result of a legal settlement announced this week, we are likely to see more retrofits in the future.

Washington Department of Transportation has been improving its stormwater systems for new highways and a few older systems, but the latest federal stormwater permit issued by the Washington Department of Ecology did not go far enough, according to the group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

Represented by Earthjustice, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance appealed the permit to the Pollution Control Hearings Board. The settlement was not everything the environmentalists wanted, but it is a solid step in dealing with aging highways.

Bob Beckman, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, explained the group’s position in a news release:

“Government agencies, businesses, and citizens are all working together to protect and restore Puget Sound, but the state’s department of transportation wasn’t carrying its share of the weight. There is a lot more work to be done, but we feel that this is a step in the right direction. The state highway system should not be held to a weaker standard than industries, local governments and the public.”

So what was included in the deal?
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Water management in California deemed critical to orcas

Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.

The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the larger picture.

“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”

Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7 percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger objected to the findings in a written statement:

“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”

Court action is almost certain.

Reporters Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle and Colin Sullivan of the New York Times’ “Greenwire” do a good job in fleshing out this story from the California perspective.

It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in whether the population is able to avoid extinction.

Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River ought to be a concern.

“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”

The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the issue.

“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”

To understand why the federal biologists consider water activities in California critical to the survival of the Southern Resident killer whales, I’ve pulled some comments from the Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (PDF 12.7mb):

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Speaking of poisoned waters and salmon…

The National Marine Fisheries Service has been studying the effects of chemical pesticides on threatened and endangered salmon species, and I have to say that I’m impressed with the thorough approach to this scientific challenge.

Not everyone is so impressed, however, and pesticide manufacturers have filed a federal lawsuit to block implementation of protection measures proposed by NMFS, but more about that in a moment.

Risk analysis is always a tricky subject, but it appears that the NMFS researchers have taken a step-by-step approach, turning over every stone.

The latest “biological opinion” (PDF 11.7 mb) is a 600-page report covering pesticides containing carbaryl, carbofuran and methomyl. Like the previous biological opinion (PDF 11 mb) on diazinon, chlorpyrifos and malathion, the agency has determined that the pesticides pose a significant risk of extinction for listed salmon and outline further restrictions on their use.

Read my story in Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun and a well-written piece by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le.

NMFS scientists have been looking at how much of each pesticide can get into a stream under various kinds of applications. In the water, these neurotoxins can affect a fish directly — if not by killing them, by impairing their response to predators, their ability to get food, their ability to find their natal streams or their ability to connect with a mate.

Even if a fish is not harmed directly, these insecticides can affect fish simply by doing their job very well — killing off all or a significant portion of the insects that a fish needs to eat, grow and survive.

As if measuring all these effects are not enough, now we learn that chemicals may exhibit synergistic effects — making it necessary to look not just at the effects of a single chemical but how multiple chemicals in the water work together.

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New rule could rein in oversight for endangered species

The timing is truly mind-boggling.

Last night, in this blog, I wrote about an eight-year legal battle by environmental groups to get the federal government to examine the true hazards of insecticides on salmon. (See entry below this one.)

In this morning’s Kitsap Sun, I noticed an Associated Press article by Dina Cappiello that talks about eliminating a portion of the Endangered Species Act that made this process possible.

A draft of the rule that Cappiello talked about has not been made public. It’s pretty technical and we should wait for the specific rule to be published. But it looks like federal agencies proposing certain actions would be allowed to do their own analysis with little or no interference from the agencies assigned to protect endangered species.

So what would be wrong with the Environmental Protection Agency examining the effects of pesticides on salmon without further review by the National Marine Fisheries Service?

According to federal biologists, the EPA has adopted protocols for reviewing chemicals as they go on the market.

“They (EPA scientists) have a pretty rigorous set way they analyze the chemicals,” Jim Lecky of NMFS told me last week. “We have taken that information ourselves and used it in our analysis.”

Lecky, who is director of the Office of Protected Resources of NMFS, said the EPA uses surrogates to represent a group of species. For example, rainbow trout was the surrogate for salmon.

“Our mission is to look at endangered and threatened species,” Lecky said. “EPA extrapolates from rainbow trout to chinook salmon. We go a little further and try to find additional effects. I think we have identified the best available information.”

Patti Goldman of Earthjustice reminded me that five years ago the EPA said in its first review of pesticides that the chemicals would have little or no effect on salmon. If the proposed rule had been in effect, EPA may have escaped further analysis of its findings.

It took two lawsuits by environmental groups as well as scientists in a separate federal agency to finally give status to the idea that pesticides on the market, as used today, pose a serious risk to endangered salmon.

Think of salmon when you pick your poison

It’s been a long time coming, but the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides is on the verge of getting the federal government to change its policies with respect to three insecticides that can harm salmon. They are diazinon, chlorpyrifos and malathion, all neurotoxins affecting the central nervous system.

As I described in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued a finding of “jeopardy” under the Endangered Species Act. That means the chemicals pose a risk of extinction for the salmon. Scientists are now considering findings for other pesticides.

Concerns about 54 pesticides were officially raised in 2000, about the time NMFS was spelling out the environmental risks — including pesticides — to more than two dozen threatened and endangered salmon.

In 2002, a federal judge ruled the Environmental Protection Agency must “consult” with NMFS on those pesticides, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Eventually, EPA found that 37 pesticides could create problems for salmon.

The other side of the consultation — a response from NMFS — was not ensured until the end of July, when the agency signed a settlement agreement with NCAP, Earthjustice and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. That agreement lays out a schedule for completing “biological opinions” under the ESA.

The draft biological opinion (PDF 11 mb) is available at NMFS’ Office of Protected Resources Web site.

“The fact that it has taken eight years to get here has left me aware that we need to continue to watchdog the process,” Aimee Code, water quality coordinator for NCAP, told me today in a phone conversation.

“I am thrilled we have gotten this far, but I am very aware that we cannot let down our guard,” she said. “It is hard for me to know that our government has been so irresponsible, allowing the marketing and sale of products they knew were of concern. They let people get comfortable using them (the pesticides) … without looking at the risks.”

An so the story continues.