(Beyond Pesticides, February 4, 2013) U.S. Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Mike Johanns (R-NE) re-introduced legislation that would reduce the review requirements for pesticides applied directly to water. Similar legislation was passed in the House of Representatives in March 2011. The previous Senate version of the bill, called the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011, passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee but never reached the Senate floor because of a hold placed on the legislation by Senators Barbra Boxer (D-CA) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD). This re-introduced legislation would reduce pesticide testing by ensuring that Clean Water Act (CWA) permits are not required for the application of pesticides.
In 2009, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case of the National Cotton Council et al. v. EPA that pesticides discharged into water are pollutants and required to be permitted under the CWA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). This ruling overturned Bush administration policy that exempted pesticides from regulation under the CWA and applied the less protective standards of the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). CWA uses a health-based standard known as maximum contamination levels (MCLs) to protect waterways and requires permits when chemicals are directly deposited into rivers, lakes and streams, whereas FIFRA uses a highly generalized risk assessment that does not consider the availability of safer alternatives.
The proponents of this legislation claim that requiring a CWA permit creates a double layer of red tape that is costly to the agriculture industry and consumers. However, FIFRA and CWA are complementary laws and the CWA permit process only affects a small number of pesticide applications. The two statutes have fundamentally different standards and methods in determining whether a pesticide will have unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and/or human health. The CWA statute is more stringent than FIFRA. CWA has a “zero discharge” standard, meaning any amount of discharge, no matter how small, without a permit, constitutes a violation of the CWA. Risk assessment, on the other hand, used under FIFRA, is weaker than a “zero” standard. Risk/benefit allows a certain amount of pollution (i.e. risk) in exchange for controversial calculations of benefit and use a threshold of harm that can vary upon EPA discretion. Since the CWA statute is more stringent in its oversight of U.S. waterways, and thus provides increased safeguards for human health and the environment, FIFRA should not be allowed to override the CWA.
Proponents of this legislation also claim that this permit process would restrict public health officials from using pesticides to control mosquitoes and the spread of West Nile virus (WNv). However, as evidenced through scientific studies and experiences from communities around the country, spraying pesticides is not an effective or efficient way to prevent death or illness associated with insect-borne WNv. Moreover, spraying for WNv can be harmful to non-target species, adversely affect wildlife, and contaminate drinking water sources.
EPA first proposed draft language in June 2010 for a Pesticide General Permit (PGP) in response to the court ruling. Under the PGP, pesticide applicators are required to reduce pesticide discharges by using the lowest effective amount of pesticide, and prevent leaks and spills, in addition to reporting any pesticide-related incidents. Pesticide applicators that exceed annual treatment area thresholds would be required to apply integrated pest management (IPM) practices, as defined by the agency. EPA’s brand of IPM is “a program of prevention, monitoring, and control, that when done correctly can greatly reduce or eliminate the amount of pesticides used.” Before the application of a pesticide, the applicator would be required to identify the specific pests, and causes of infestation. The pesticide applicator must then evaluate the following management options before selecting a pesticides: (1) no action, (2) preventive measures, (3) mechanical control, (4) cultural methods, and (5) biological control agents. EPA estimates the regulations now in place affect 365,000 pesticide applicators that use an estimated 5.6 million pounds of pesticides annually.
Waterways in the United States are increasingly imperiled from excessive pesticide contamination, and these toxic chemicals are a threat to people and wildlife. Pesticides discharged in our nation’s rivers, lakes and streams can harm or kill fish and amphibians. These toxicants have the potential to accumulate in the fish we eat and the water we drink. By eliminating the permit process under CWA, this legislation would create a dangerous vacuum in protecting wildlife, human health and natural ecosystems.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides