(Beyond Pesticides, May 2, 2013) A committee of the National Academy of Sciences’ Research Council (NRC) issued a new report that outlines steps to improve regulatory problems associated with pesticides that harm endangered and threatened species. The report, Evaluating Risks That Pesticides Pose to Endangered, Threatened Species — New Report suggests the need to overhaul EPA’s deeply flawed pesticide approval process.
Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), before a pesticide can be sold, distributed, or used in the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to determine that the pesticide does not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. However, in the case of species listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), all federal agencies, including EPA, are required to ensure that their actions will not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species by diminishing the species’ numbers and reproduction. To do this, in its pesticide registration process, EPA is required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) when a federal action may adversely affect a listed species or its habitat. Over the last decade, questions have been raised regarding the best approaches or methods for determining the risks pesticides pose to listed species and their habitats. EPA, FWS, and NMFS have developed different approaches to evaluating environmental risks because their legal mandates, responsibilities, institutional cultures, and expertise vary. As a result, the National Research Council was asked to examine the scientific and technical issues related to determining risks posed to listed species by pesticides.
The NRC report says that the agencies should use a risk assessment approach that addresses problem formulation, exposure analysis, effects analysis, and risk characterization when determining whether a pesticide is likely to pose a threat to endangered or threatened species. The committee examined several components of the risk assessment process it believes better coordination and agreement would facilitate an integrated approach to examining risks to listed species and their habitats. These include evaluating methods for identifying the best scientific data available, assessing approaches for developing modeling assumptions, identifying geospatial information that might be used in the risk assessment, reviewing approaches for characterizing effects, analyzing the scientific information available for estimating effects of mixtures and other, or “inert,” ingredients, and examining the use of uncertainty factors to account for gaps in data. The findings imply that without a significant revamping of its review process, the operative agencies can not meet their statutory obligations.
Currently under ESA, EPA is required to determine how a pesticide will affect endangered species when that chemical is registered or has its registration reevaluated, and consult with FWS and NMFS for any necessary additional information and analysis. However, NRC concluded that EPA, NMFS, and FWS have not worked effectively in the consultation process and the development of biological opinions. One reason for this problem is the difference in legal authorities and interpretation of law. EPA registers pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which authorizes a risk-based process that cost/benefit analyses in the agency’s determination of allowable levels of harm. NMFS and FWS, under ESA, is more precautionary in its approach and has no cost/benefit directive.
According to NRC, if FWS and NMFS could build on EPA’s analysis of whether a pesticide is likely to adversely affect a listed species, rather than conduct a completely new analysis, the assessment would likely be more effective and scientifically credible. Furthermore, agreement among the agencies has been impeded by a lack of communication and coordination throughout the process. Therefore, the committee emphasized the need for coordination, which it views as necessary to ensure a complete and representative assessment of risk and that each agency’s technical needs are met.
However, EPA’s risk assessment process does not function to protect the most vulnerable in biological systems, but institutes restrictions intended to mitigate risks. The mandated consultations with FWS and NMFS could present the opportunity to evaluate alternative practices that would avoid harm to endangered species, but is largely limited to the risk management framework that has so long dominated EPA’s approach to regulating pesticides.
Prior to 2004, EPA believed the extensive environmental risk assessments required in the registration process also would include impacts on endangered species. However, represented by the public interest law group Earthjustice, several stakeholder organizations including the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), filed suit in January 2001 to force EPA to fulfill the distinct ESA requirements. Specifically, the lawsuit challenged EPA’s decision to register 54 pesticides without first consulting with federal fish biologists regarding the potential impact on protected salmon and steelhead species in the Northwest. The judge, in a lawsuit initiated in 2002, called EPA’s “wholesale non-compliance” with its ESA obligations “patently unlawful” and ordered the agency to consult with NMFS regarding adverse impacts on the Northwest runs. More recently, EPA’s failure to consult with FWS on the impacts of hundreds of pesticides known to be harmful to more than 200 endangered and threatened species prompted a 2011 lawsuit.
Sources: National Academy of Sciences
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.