(Beyond Pesticides, May 26, 2017) On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would reverse an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirement to obtain a permit before spraying pesticides on or near waterways. The passage of HR 953, The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act (known by environmentalists as the “Poison Our Waters Act”), is the latest update in a multi-year string of attempts to rollback commonsense protections for the public waterways all Americans use for swimming, fishing, and other forms of recreation. It will now move forward to be considered by the Republican-majority Senate, where it will most likely pass and be signed into law.
HR 953, if signed into law, would reverse a 2009 decision issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of National Cotton Council et al. v. EPA, which held that pesticides applied to waterways should be considered pollutants under federal law and regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. Prior to the decision, the EPA, under the Bush Administration, had allowed the weaker and more generalized standards under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to be followed. This allowed pesticides to be discharged into U.S. waterways without any federal oversight, as FIFRA does not require tracking such applications and assessing the adverse effects on local ecosystems.
To be clear, HR 953 would:
(1) undermine federal authority to protect U.S. waters under the Clean Water Act,
(2) allow spraying of toxic chemicals into waterways without local and state oversight,
(3) contaminate drinking water sources and harm aquatic life, and
(4) not reduce claimed burdens to farmers, since there are currently no burdens.
Backers of the bill continually argue that the permit requirements place undue burdens on farmers, but in reality, the majority of pesticide applicators can obtain a permit with little restriction, and agricultural activities are exempt from the requirement. What the bill will actually do is take away American’s right to know what toxic chemicals are entering their waterways. “This bill takes away the public’s right to know about toxic pesticides we may be exposed to,” Mae Wu, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “It eliminates the current commonsense requirement that communities should have access to basic information about what’s being sprayed in waters that can pose risks for public health.”
The vote, which was recorded as 256-165, included 25 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill. While disappointing, many Democrats did voice their concerns with the legislation. According to U.S. News, Jim McGovern, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee stated, “The Republicans are again bending over backward to help corporations and the wealthiest among us, while ignoring science and leaving hard-working families to suffer the consequences.”. . .“This administration’s decisions have placed special interests and their financial contributions ahead of the health and safety of our citizens.”
If this bill passes, citizens will be forced to take innovative local actions to protect threatened waters. Already, nearly 2,000 waterways are impaired by pesticide contamination, and many more have simply not been tested. A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report from 2014 finds that levels of pesticides continue to be a concern for aquatic life in many of the nation’s rivers and streams in agricultural and urban areas. The study, which documents pesticide levels in U.S. waterways for two decades (1992-2011), finds pesticides and their breakdown products in U.S. streams more than 90 percent of the time. Known pesticide water contaminants, such as atrazine, metolachlor, and simazine, continue to be detected in streams more than 50 percent of the time, with fipronil being the pesticide most frequently found at levels of potential concern for aquatic organisms in urban streams. The report also found that for urban areas, 90 percent of the streams exceeded a chronic aquatic life benchmarks. In 2015, another USGS report found that neonicotinoid insecticides contaminate over half of urban and agricultural streams across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Beyond Pesticides continues to fight to prevent water pollution and harmful agricultural practices. Visit our Threatened Waters page, and learn how organic land management practices protect waterways in the article, Organic Land Management and the Protection of Water Quality. Do your part! Contact your Senators and ask them to oppose HR 953.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.