(Beyond Pesticides, April 16, 2012) The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft Biological Opinion finding that three commonly used herbicides are increasing the chance of extinction for threatened and endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead runs. The NMFS assessment reverses earlier assurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the pesticides are “not likely to adversely affect” the dwindling salmon populations. The draft Opinion also contains restrictions on applying the three pesticides near waterways in California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho that provide habitat for the threatened and endangered runs. Public comment on the draft is being accepted through April 30 and the restrictions on applying the pesticides will take effect no later than one year after the final assessment is released.
NMFS prepared the draft Opinion in response to EPA’s initial assessment of the risk that current uses of the herbicides oryzalin, pendimethalin and trifluralin pose for the threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead species. NMFS’ findings contradict significant conclusions from EPA’s work and highlight weaknesses in the agency’s current ecological risk assessment process that underestimate risk and fail to meet modern standards of analysis. For example, NMFS cites EPA’s failure to provide any analysis of the pesticides’ breakdown products or of the other ingredients -whether active or inert, which are added to commercial product formulations. Additionally, NMFS states that EPA’s modeling procedures would likely underestimate exposure to the pesticides and the resulting risk and that the EPA-approved pesticide labels lack sufficient information to prevent excessive and unnecessary applications. The draft Opinion concludes that if oryzalin, pendimethalin, and trifluralin remain in use as currently authorized, they are “likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations.
The draft Opinion represents another step forward in a decade-long struggle to compel EPA to exercise its full statutory authority to protect and conserve biodiversity. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), EPA is required to determine how a pesticide will affect threatened and endangered species when that chemical is registered or has its registration reviewed. 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 this requirement. 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. In 2002, a federal court ruling 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. (Salmon and steelhead are classified as marine fish; EPA is required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when the protected species lives in freshwater).
“This is a huge step forward for the health of our rivers,” said NCAP Environmental Health Associate Aimee Code. She continued, “These findings are a reminder that chemical pest control comes at a high cost. The true solution is to expand the use of non-chemical solutions.” Glen Spain of PCFFA stated, “These pesticides are poisons and do not belong in salmon streams. The bottom line for us is that poisoning salmon rivers puts our people out of work as well as creates a public health hazard. It is far more cost effective to keep these poisons out of our rivers to begin with than to try to clean up messes afterwards.”
NMFS notified EPA that current use patterns for oryzalin, pendimethalin, and trifluralin are likely to jeopardize half of the 26 salmon populations on the West Coast protected by the ESA. All three pesticides belong to the dinitroaniline sulfonamide class of herbicides and are widely used in agricultural, lawn and home garden and right-of-way applications. The use restrictions called for in the draft Opinion would prohibit aerial applications of the pesticides within 300 feet of salmon waters; mandate a 10 foot vegetated strip or a 20-foot no spray zone between salmon waters and places where these herbicides are applied; and establish mandatory reporting of fish kills near where these chemicals are applied.
The new draft Opinion is the fifth prepared by NMFS since the settlement of a second lawsuit in 2007 in which the federal government committed to a four-year time-line for completing reviews of the pesticides remaining from the original suit against EPA. Reviews of the pesticides considered to be most damaging to protected species were completed first and there are eleven compounds still under review now that oryzalin, pendimethalin, and trifluralin have been completed. In November 2011, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Dow AgroSciences that challenged EPA’s authority to implement new use restrictions based on the NMFS Biological Opinions. Due to the delay resulting from that lawsuit, none of the use restrictions designed to protect threatened and endangered species from the pesticides deemed to pose the greatest risk, including chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion, have been implemented.
Image of Chinook Salmon Courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.