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Daily News Blog

24
Jun

Court Order Leads to EPA Finding that Neonicotinoid Pesticides Are a Serious Threat

(Beyond Pesticides, June 24, 2022) As reported by the Center for Food Safety (CFS), on June 16 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released final Biological Evaluations, for three neonicotinoid insecticides, that indicate that these pesticides are “likely to adversely affect” the vast majority of endangered or threatened species and/or their designated critical habitats. These evaluations for imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam have been a long time coming, and represent, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the first time EPA “has completed biological evaluations of any neonicotinoids’ harms to the nation’s most imperiled plants and animals.” These evaluations evidence what CFS, CBD, Beyond Pesticides, and others have maintained for years: that neonicotinoid compounds are very serious threats to the survival and well-being of myriad organisms and habitats.

A Biological Evaluation (BE) is an EPA analysis of potential harmful impacts of a registered pesticide on any species federally listed, per the Endangered Species Act, as endangered or threatened, or on their critical habitats. EPA was legally required to issue the determinations by the June 2022 deadline, per CFS litigation and a subsequent 2019 legal settlement. EPA was the defendant in 2017 litigation brought by CFS, with Beyond Pesticides, several beekeepers, and the Center for Environmental Health as co-plaintiffs.

The original suit charged that EPA had violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when it registered these neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides. CBD has written that EPA has, for decades, essentially not complied with its obligations under ESA “to assess pesticides’ harms to protected species. The agency was finally forced to do these evaluation under the terms of legal agreements with the Center for Food Safety and the Natural Resources Defense Council.”

Beyond Pesticides wrote in 2021, “Under the [ESA], EPA is required to consult with federal wildlife agencies and conduct a biological evaluation of the impacts a pesticide may have on endangered species and their habitats, prior to the agency formally registering the pesticide. This almost never happens. EPA regularly fails to conduct this evaluation, requiring environmental and conservation organizations to sue the agency in order to force compliance with the law. EPA has been subject to a number of legal challenges over the last decade for its failure to comply with ESA when it registered neonic pesticides.”

Neonicotinoids are a class of systemic (i.e., affecting all parts of a plant), neurotoxic insecticides used to “control” a variety of piercing and sucking pests; they make the entire plant toxic, including nectar, pollen, and fruit. The use of neonics has escalated dramatically since the mid-2000s. Largely banned in the European Union (EU), neonics are used extensively in the U.S. CBD has written that “hundreds of studies have shown they play a major role in population-level declines of bees, birds, butterflies and freshwater invertebrates. More-recent studies are showing they cause significant harm to mammals, as well.”

The compounds are deployed through various means, including spraying, soil drenches, injections into trees, and most ubiquitously, as crop seed coatings. Neonics are very persistent in soils, and are readily moved off of target sites through the air, and via water and soil dusts. As CFS has noted, “After seeds coated with neonics are planted, the chemicals spread far beyond the crop they are intended for and can contaminate nearby wildflowers, soil and water — all of which pose significant threats to bees foraging and nesting in the area. It has been known for several years that these chemicals can kill or weaken more than just the targeted pests. Non-target harm can occur to beneficial invertebrates, as well as to birds and other wildlife, through both direct and indirect effects.”

The “other wildlife” that can be affected, according to CFS’s announcement of the BEs, includes many non-insect organisms. The final documents released by EPA indicated that each of the three neonics is “likely to adversely affect” from two-thirds to more than three-fourths of the nation’s endangered species — a staggering 1,225–1,445 discrete species. CFS point out in its announcement, “This includes all [39 species of] amphibians, and the majority of already endangered fish, birds, and mammals, as well as pollinators and the plants they pollinate. Species found likely to be adversely affected include the Chinook salmon, Florida panther, Indiana bat, whooping crane, California red-legged frog, Karner blue butterfly, yellow larkspur, and many more.”

EPA’s “likely to adversely affect” determination means that the agency “reasonably expects that at least one individual animal or plant, among a variety of listed species, may be exposed to the pesticide at a sufficient level to have an adverse effect.” The BEs of the three neonic insecticides yielded the following results, respectively. Clothianidin is likely to adversely affect 67% of species and 56% of critical habitats; imidacloprid is likely to adversely affect 79% of species and 83% of critical habitats; and thiamethoxam is likely to adversely affect 77% species and 81% of critical habitats.

CBD’s Environmental Health Director, Lori Ann Burd, commented, “These deeply troubling findings leave no doubt that these dangerous pesticides are silencing the songs of frogs, the flutter of butterfly wings and the buzz of bees. Many of the species harmed by neonicotinoids are experiencing precipitous declines, and [thus], EPA’s choices may well determine whether or not they go extinct. . . . We’re in the midst of a heartbreaking extinction crisis and neonicotinoids are playing an outsized role in driving it. Now that the EPA has completed its analysis, the only question is whether it will muster the courage to stand up to Big Ag and ban these chemicals or will choose to facilitate extinction.”

Industrial agriculture groups, such as the American Soybean Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, are voicing distress at the BEs, insisting that “the evaluations for several neonicotinoid pesticides don’t incorporate scientific and commercial data that could have provided a more realistic picture of the potential impacts of the chemistries on different species. . . . American Soybean Association President Brad Doyle says, ‘Growers have, time and again, pointed EPA to real-world data to improve their endangered species assessments, and the agency has again chosen to disregard the data.’”

EPA perhaps anticipated this reaction when it published this in its FAQ on the BEs: “Did EPA consider real world pesticide usage data in the final biological evaluations? Yes. Under EPA’s Revised Method for conducting biological evaluations, the agency considers real world data on pesticide applications, including how much, when, and where pesticides are applied. EPA evaluates these usage data to determine whether a species is likely or not to be adversely affected by a pesticide (step 2 in EPA’s biological evaluation). Before incorporating usage data, EPA evaluates the quality and relevance of the data to determine their applicability, utility, and soundness. In general, EPA considers the most recent 5 years of usage data to represent current labeled uses.”

In January 2020, EPA issued affirming interim decisions on registration of several neonics (including imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam) despite, as Beyond Pesticides wrote, “EPA’s own findings of evidence of serious threats posed by neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides to pollinators, aquatic invertebrates, and other wildlife, that disregard the science on the pesticides’ impacts . . . it appears that the agency is prepared to finalize these registrations late in 2022.” Then, in August 2021, EPA issued draft BEs on these three compounds, finding that they were likely to “adversely affect over 1,000 endangered species out of 1,821 listed under the law.”

As reported by The Guardian in March 2022, it was widely expected that the agency would nevertheless allow their continued use — to great hue and cry from the wildlife, health, and environmental advocacy community. That such huge proportions of species are at risk from use of these neonics — which EPA knew when it appeared poised to continue to allow their use — is not only a violation of the intent of the ESA, but also, a biological and moral outrage.

The question now is whether the release of these BEs will change EPA’s behavior on neonics. The FAQ the agency published offers this: “Could there be additional mitigation measures that EPA may need to adopt to protect threatened and endangered species from these neonicotinoid pesticides? Yes, through the registration review of the neonicotinoids, EPA is currently proposing mitigations to protect non-target species. EPA may need to adopt additional mitigations in the future to ensure that the neonicotinoids are not likely to jeopardize listed species or adversely modify their designated critical habitats.”

The release of these BEs means, for endangered species and habitats, a far-too-familiar waiting game — to see what actions EPA will actually take to protect them. To Beyond Pesticides, the agency’s language here sounds concerning — “mitigations to protect non-target species,” and “additional mitigations in the future.” Beyond Pesticides advocates that EPA ban neonicotinoid insecticides.

The EU banned use of imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam in 2013 and thiacloprid in 2019. Last year, Maine passed a law prohibiting consumer use of neonicotinoid pesticides containing any of these active ingredients — dinotefuran, clothianidin, imidacloprid, or thiamethoxam. New York and New Jersey have begun restrictions on some uses of neonics; other states, including California and Massachusetts, have made efforts to rein in the use of neonics.

Although these local efforts are laudable, they nevertheless represent a piecemeal, fractured approach, across myriad state and local authorities, to restrict use of these highly destructive pesticides. The fix lies with EPA — to get these out of agriculture, the materials stream, and the environment. Now is not too soon. Please contact EPA Administrator Michael Regan [202.564.4700 or [email protected]] and the director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, Edward Messina [202.566.1245 or [email protected]] to insist on urgency in de-registering these compounds.

Sources: Center for Food Safety press release and Center for Biological Diversity press release

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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