(Beyond Pesticides, October 30, 2013) Once again, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is urging Farm Bill conference committee members to accept a provision that would eliminate what they call a redundant permitting requirement for pesticide users. H.R. 935: Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2013 is similar to a previous piece of legislation that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011 to eliminate the requirement that pesticide applicators obtain Clean Water Act (CWA) permits (known as National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit) for applications where pesticides could be discharged into water. A bipartisan group of Senators hope to use the Farm Bill to eliminate permitting requirement, continuing to believe the myth that permits burden farmers and applicators.
The Senate and House are now in a conference committee to work out the details of a new Farm Bill to reauthorize the current law. A dozen Senators, led by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., have asked House and Senate negotiators to do away with the CWA regulation of pesticide discharges as they consider a compromise Farm Bill. Legislation eliminating the CWA permitting requirement last year passed the House, but the move to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the permitting authority has had more of a rocky road in the Senate. Attempts to strip CWA protections have so far had strong opposition from several Senators, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who have warned about the risks of harsh chemicals polluting the nation’s waterways.
According to an Oct. 17 letter sent by Sen. Hagan and 11 Senators to leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee urging their support of H.R. 935, the Senators write that the CWA permits for pesticide discharges in U.S. waterways “impose resource and liability burdens on thousands of small businesses, farms ”¦ in addition to exposure to citizen lawsuits.” The Senators believe that the permits are unnecessary and duplicative regulation that wastes taxpayer dollars and provides little to no environmental or public health benefits. The senators say that pesticide users already have to comply with under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
However, the CWA permits, which do not apply to agricultural pesticide applications, only affect a relatively small number of pesticide applications, and do not prevent applicators from using pesticides, especially for public health emergencies. The permits do require applicators to record their pesticide applications and monitor application sites for any adverse incidents, which must be reported. For many states the cost of the permit is as low as $25. The myth that the CWA permits for pesticide discharges near waterways are burdensome has not been substantiated. Read “Clearing up the Confusion Surrounding the New NPDES General Permit.”
Conversely, the potentially high cost of public health problems, environmental clean-up efforts, and irreversible ecological damage that can result from unchecked, indiscriminate pollution of waterways is being ignored by opponents of CWA regulation. The reality is that this permitting process encourages pesticide users to seek alternative approaches to pest management if their current methods are going to contaminate nearby sources of water. This is underscored by the recent federal report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) which finds that 83 percent of streams in agricultural and urban areas contain at least one aquatic community that was altered notably as a result of runoff from pesticides and contaminants. Previous USGS reports have documented pesticides and fertilizers in U.S. streams and drinking water. Herbicides like atrazine, metalachlor, and simizine are among those often found in surface waters of 186 rivers and streams sampled by USGS since the early 1990s, and are highly correlated with the presence of upstream wastewater sources or upstream agricultural and urban land use. Given this data and the vast knowledge that we have on organic, integrated pest management (IPM) and non-chemical solutions, H.R. 935 will be a disastrous step backwards.
Additionally, many believe that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) sufficiently regulates pesticide use near waterways, but this is not accurate, given the prevalence of surface and ground water contamination routinely detected in the nation’s streams, as well as numerous incidents of adverse ecological findings. Furthermore, FIFRA and CWA have fundamentally different standards and methods in determining whether a pesticide will have unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and/or human health. CWA uses a health-based standard 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 weighs risks versus benefits to allow a certain amount of pollution (i.e. risk) in exchange for controversial calculations of benefit and a threshold of harm that can vary upon EPA’s discretion and which does not consider the availability of safer alternatives.
H.R. 935, contained in the current House version of the Farm Bill but not in the Senate’s, would reverse the 2009 ruling in National Cotton Council v. U.S. EPA, a federal appeals ruled that EPA must require new Clean Water Act permits, under the CWA’s National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES), from pesticide users who spray over water. This ruling overturned Bush administration policy that created exemptions from regulation for pesticides under the CWA and applied the less protective standards of the FIFRA. EPA began requiring the permits in fall 2011. Since the requirement was enacted in 2011, it has been under attack from industry and their allies in Congress. It began with H.R. 872: Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011, which passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee but never reached the Senate floor. Similar legislation was re-introduced by Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Mike Johanns (R-NE). Sen. Hagan was also behind a most recent attempt earlier this year to dismantle CWA permits with The Sensible Environmental Protection Act (S-EPA), which sought to clarify that Clean Water Act permits were not required for pesticide applications in or near water. This bill also asked EPA to report back to Congress on whether FIFRA can be improved to better protect human health and the environment from pesticide applications.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), both members of the Senate agriculture panel, joined the new call to use the Farm Bill to eliminate the requirement. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), David Vitter (R-La.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also signed the letter. More than 160 organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Corn Growers Association, this week also called on farm bill conferees to eliminate the requirement.
Waterways in the U.S. are increasingly imperiled from various agents, including agricultural and industrial discharges, nutrient loading (nitrogen and phosphorus), and biological agents such as pathogens. Pesticides discharged into 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. The spirit of the Clean Water Act is that every community in the United States has the right to enjoy fishable and swimmable bodies of water. Without the Clean Water Act, there are no common sense backstops requiring applicators to at least consider alternatives to spraying toxic pesticides directly into waterways.
Act Now! We can’t afford to lose these protections. Tell your Senators to oppose any efforts to undermine the Clean Water Act.
For more information, read our factsheet, Clearing up the Confusion Surrounding the New NPDES General Permit and visit our Threatened Waters page. To keep up to date on Congressional and government agency actions, sign-up for Beyond Pesticides’ action alerts.