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Daily News Blog

20
Jun

EPA “Mitigation Menu” Called Complex, Raising Doubts about Required Endangered Species Protection

EPA Mitigation Menu for “reducing pesticide exposure to nontarget species from agricultural crop uses" raises doubts re: endangered species protections.

(Beyond Pesticides, June 18, 2024) As part of its update to the proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Endangered Species Act (ESA) Workplan, the agency held a public webinar on June 18, 2024, which provided an overview of the agency’s “Mitigation Menu Website” for “reducing pesticide exposure to nontarget species from agricultural crop uses.” [Check back to see webinar when posted by EPA.] After court decisions forced EPA to develop a strategy to meet its statutory responsibility to protect endangered species from pesticide use, the agency recognized that it is, in its own words, “unable to keep pace” with its legal obligations. Despite this acknowledgement, the agency said it would “provide flexibility to growers to choose mitigations that work best for their situation.” In this spirit, a range of people, including grower groups, gathered earlier in the year for a series of workshops in the Pacific Northwest to discuss possible mitigation measures. According to a report written by commercial beekeeper Steve Ellis (more background), concrete decisions were not reached at the workshops as participants recognized the complexities in crafting pesticide product label restrictions to protect endangered species. Mr. Ellis concluded: “If it’s so complex that it’s impossible, then no one wins.”

For years EPA has failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by not accounting for impacts to threatened and endangered species when approving pesticides for use under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). In 2021, as a result of multiple lawsuits aimed at holding EPA accountable, the agency acknowledged its failure to properly assess impacts on species. To comply with ESA (and compelled by court orders), EPA, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, established a number of “Pesticide Use Limitation Areas” in endangered species’ known or needed habitat and imposed additional pesticide-use restrictions for certain pesticides in those areas. Thus began an effort to improve species assessments and pesticide mitigations to protect vulnerable species.

In July 2023, EPA released the Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework (updated in 2024), which it describes as “an efficient approach to determining the need for, the level of, and geographic extent of early mitigations for listed species from agricultural uses of conventional herbicides.” However, following public comments on these documents, EPA has backtracked on its proposals, introducing a degree of flexibility that critics say will undermine the protection of endangered species.

Beyond Pesticides’ comments on the policy stated the following: “EPA starts with the position that farmers cannot farm without these toxic chemicals, an assumption that clouds and undermines the regulatory process and keeps farmers on the pesticide treadmill. EPA says, ‘Without certain pesticide products, farmers could have trouble growing crops that feed Americans and public health agencies could lack the tools needed to combat insect-borne diseases’ Not true. Organic farmers are not reliant on these pesticides.” (See Beyond Pesticides’ comments.)

As EPA explains, the purpose of the webinar is to familiarize users with the “Mitigation Menu Website” and how to navigate it. At the meeting on July 18, EPA’s webinar will include:

  1. A brief background on the goal and development of the mitigation menu,
  2. A demonstration of how users would follow new label directions using the website,
  3. An explanation of how to navigate the website,
  4. Directions on how to access other resources associated with the website, and
  5. An opportunity for questions and feedback on the proposed function of the menu, the website, and the use of the website for ESA strategies and additional types of mitigation (e.g., spray drift).

The Pacific Northwest workshops, held in Oregon and Washington, demonstrated that EPA is a long way from developing a usable mitigation program. The last in the series of workshops was held over two days in late May in Vancouver, Washington.  Approximately 40 stakeholders, including growers, pesticide manufacturers and applicators, state regulators, academics, and other interested parties, got together to perform a “test run” on the proposed mitigation strategy. What they found was a process so cumbersome and convoluted that it cannot be taught, implemented, or enforced.

Under the new protocol, pesticide labels will now direct users to an EPA website called Bulletins Live Two. The website is supposed to assist users in determining if a particular geographical area is subject to “Pesticide Use Limitations” and if so, which mitigation measures must be followed to protect threatened and endangered species that may be present at the site.

Restrictions are designed to reduce the risk of a pesticide moving from its targeted species into the ecosystem where it may have unintended harmful effects on threatened and endangered species. Applicators use a point system developed by EPA to determine if enough mitigation measures can be applied to allow for the use of the pesticide in a use limitation area.

To test this methodology, workshop participants were given hypothetical scenarios for pesticide application and asked to determine which, if any, mitigation measures should be applied. But the participants found stumbling blocks from the beginning. For starters, users found the point system to be complex and cumbersome. In addition to it being a mathematical challenge, points must be recalculated every six months when new bulletins are released with new instructions and restrictions for individual pesticides.

Even more problematic was the EPA website where participants were to reference both location and mitigation information. Pesticide labels referred people to differing EPA websites. The Bulletins Live website did not work properly on cell phones and determining the location of hypothetical application was “overly complicated.”

Once the appropriate bulletins were identified on EPA’s website for the location and type of pesticide, implementing the mitigation measures proved even harder with multiple sources of mitigation guidance, including the pesticide label and the latest EPA bulletin. Moreover, users were offered a choice of various mitigation measures that were reiterated with different wording, causing confusion and doubt. Essentially, users were left to determine on their own which measures were most appropriate and effective for their case. Ultimately, what the group found was that the guidance was not appropriate to real-world applications where users may be applying more than one pesticide at a time or where users were not fully versed in math or English.

Among the improvements recommended by the workshops were improved technology that would allow users to simply determine appropriate parameters for using pesticides under their specific conditions. Another suggestion was to move away from blanket, nationwide mitigation measures and rely on state or local agencies responsible for determining appropriate mitigation measures in their region.

Even if EPA is able to fix some of the technological problems with its website, mitigations only lessen the chance of harmful impacts of pesticide use. Perhaps more importantly, the mitigation measures are entirely voluntary. There is no enforcement mechanism and no way to ensure that the pesticides are used as directed or that mitigation measures are implemented properly.

Vulnerable Species Pilot Program

As Beyond Pesticides reported in February 2024, EPA appears to have put on hold its vulnerable species pilot projects after vociferous comments from the petrochemical pesticide industry, and instead opted to “create a narrow, tailored policy rather than a sweeping, burdensome one,” according to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. EPA has now announced it will not implement the VSP at least until its habitat maps are improved. Then in April 2024, Beyond Pesticides reported on rollbacks to the Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework that “simplified” EPA’s approach, increased growers’ “flexibility” when applying mitigation measures, and reduced the mitigation measures required in certain situations. Together these regulatory rollbacks will significantly reduce the success of EPA’s efforts to comply with the ESA and protect vulnerable plants and animals.

Throughout the herbicide strategy formulation process, EPA has repeatedly buckled to the interests of pesticide manufacturers. As described above, initial EPA proposals have repeatedly been weakened and it appears that EPA will consider further rollbacks. For example, in February 2024, EPA said they would “develop guidelines that the public can use to develop and submit refined maps for hundreds of other endangered species,” instead of basing such maps on academic studies of species locations. In the same announcement, EPA went on to say it was “considering which mitigations, if any, are needed on land that is dry or flat or both,” instead of basing mitigations on the specifics of the soil type, species of concern, and type of pesticide.

EPA is also making allowances for use of a pesticide when impacts cannot be avoided. Specifically, EPA plans to allow the use of toxic chemicals that kill endangered species when the user provides “offsets” such as “funding habitat restoration for the species, contributing to a captive rearing project at a zoo for the species, or other steps to conserve the species.” How EPA will ensure that such offsets happen or that they successfully contribute to the conservation of a species of concern has not been described.

The only way to truly protect endangered species, as well as the ecosystem, is to stop the use of pesticides completely. Converting the world’s agricultural systems to organic would have a tremendous positive impact on endangered species populations. Organic farming enhances biodiversity in the ecosystem and mitigates environmental degradation and climate change, all of which is necessary for recovery of threatened and endangered species.

By avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic farms provide a safer habitat for a wide range of organisms, from soil microbes and insects to birds and mammals. This biodiversity is crucial for ecosystem resilience and the provision of ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination, and nutrient cycling, that benefit all species. (See here, here, and here). Organic farming also mitigates climate change, which is a significant contributor to the decline of species around the world. Organic farming methods increase carbon sequestration in soils, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels through practices that enhance soil organic carbon, such as using cover crops and organic amendments. Furthermore, organic farming reduces the reliance on fossil fuels by eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are energy-intensive to produce.

Advocates of organic agriculture argue that instead of spending millions of dollars and many years creating mitigation programs that are unenforceable and ineffective, EPA should spend the same amount of time and money supporting transition to organic agriculture and supporting farmers in exiting the toxic pesticide treadmill. As Rodale Institute writes, “Organic farming is not simply the substitution of approved input materials. It is the replacement of a treatment approach with a process approach to create a balanced system of plant and animal interactions.” The European Union has already far surpassed the United States in this effort by setting ambitious targets to increase organic farmland and provide substantial funding to support organic farmers. Similar initiatives could help to overcome the barriers to adopting organic practices in the United States, contribute to the conservation of threatened and endangered species, and ensure a sustainable and healthy future for global agriculture.

Beyond Pesticides is calling for an end to all petrochemical pesticide and fertilizer use by 2032 and accelerate the adoption of organic farming and land use. While many observers of regulatory failure may be tempted to feel hopeless, change can be driven by market demand. Organic agriculture is growing, and consumers have created not just a market for organic produce and crops, but momentum for responsible food production provided by organic methods.

To appreciate the importance of consuming organic food, it is essential to recognize the benefits of eliminating pesticides throughout the food production process. This elimination protects farmworkers, air, water, land, and biodiversity, in addition to ensuring food safety. (Refer to Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience database for a comprehensive overview of the benefits of organic food production.) The continued growth in organic sales and land use indicates a significant shift in the agricultural and food production sectors as more people become aware of the detrimental effects of agribusiness on ecosystems and human health. For more information on organic agriculture and its history, Beyond Pesticides’ website offers extensive resources. To learn about the health benefits of organic agriculture, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture webpage.

Beyond Pesticides is a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC). The coalition’s materials provide up-to-date information on organic agriculture policy in the U.S., including Farm Bill recommendations and discussions. Beyond Pesticides has strategically sought to transform our country’s approach to pest management, both agricultural and residential/structural, by eliminating reliance on pesticides and advancing organic management practices that do not rely on toxic inputs. In this context, EPA’s failure to protect endangered species from unnecessary pesticide exposure is yet an example of chemical industry influence resulting in inadequate underlying laws and regulations. We must teach that these chemicals are not only dangerous to environmental health but are unnecessary to prevent pests and achieve pest management goals. 

Please see the Daily News Blog and Take Action features on the Beyond Pesticides’ website homepage, and join Beyond Pesticides to support our campaign to end the use of toxic pesticides. 

***
And, as we celebrate national Pollinator Week, please visit Beyond Pesticides’ website for proactive pollinator-friendly actions you may take each day to support critical pollinator health. Together, our actions – small and large- can make a difference!

Today’s featured image: “New England Aster with Monarch Butterfly” by Julia from Manasses, VA!

Thursday—Identifying and Planting for Pollinators
With pollinators responsible for over 80% of the world’s flowering plants, it’s no wonder we are fighting to protect them. Pollinators are important members of various land ecosystems, therefore how we manage these ecosystems and landscapes plays a critical role in long-term pollinator health. The expansion of urban, suburban, and agricultural areas reduces pollinator habitat and access to food, while intensive chemical use harms these beneficial organisms. Pesticide applications expose bees, birds, butterflies, and more to acute and sublethal levels of pesticides, which can result in reproductive abnormalities, impaired foraging, and even death. Please see our brief introduction to pollinators here! 

What can we do? You can play a role in protecting pollinators simply by making an organic garden with colorful, bee-attractive flowering plants, pledging it as pollinator-friendly, or even organizing your community, schools, or local government to make choices that foster pollinators. Don’t have a garden? Windows and balconies are also great places to feature plants to encourage pollinators to stop by! Backyard trees, gardens, and beekeeping are great ways to support biodiversity and pollinators. Intentionally providing water, food, and forage to pollinators will encourage and boost pollinator populations in your community. 

It helps to review Organic Lawn Care 101 best practices and know your weeds—simple steps to convert your lawn to organic! Check out the BEE Protective Habitat Guide for more information; the Do-It-Yourself Biodiversity resource offers hints about increasing biodiversity; and the Pollinator-Friendly Seed Directory.

 

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

Sources:

Register for EPA’s Webinar on Mitigation Menu Website to Protect Nontarget Species from Pesticide Exposure, EPA announcement, June 4, 2024

Work Group Aims to Make New Endangered Species Rules Workable, Western Integrated Pest Management Center newsletter, June 2024

Implementing EPA’s Workplan to Protect Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides:

Pilot Projects Vulnerable Species Project, Herbicide Strategy Hawaii Strategy Insecticide Strategy

Endangered Species Act Workplan Update – Nontarget Species Mitigation for Registration Review and Other FIFRA Actions, EPA Workplan Update, November 2022

EPA Draft Herbicide Strategy Framework to Reduce Exposure of Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Species and Designated Critical Habitats from the Use of Conventional Agricultural Herbicides, EPA Draft Plan, July 2023

Vulnerable Listed (Endangered and Threatened) Species Pilot Project: Proposed Mitigations, Implementation Plan, and Possible Expansion, EPA Draft Plan, June 2023

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