Agriculture groups in the Pacific Northwest are calling for federal agencies to change how they determine if pesticides have an impact on endangered species and decide what mitigation measures might be required. They want the process to be more transparent and to allow input from producers and other stakeholders.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires a government agency that takes action that could affect an endangered species (such as registration of a pesticide) to consult with the agency responsible for recovery of that species, which in the case of salmon is the National Marine Fisheries Service.
In 2001, the Washington Toxics Coalition sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the registrations of 54 pesticides and their potential effects on salmon. As a result of the lawsuit, the fisheries service was required to issue biological opinions on 37 pesticides that may affect salmon. It has issued three within the past two years, covering a total of 18 pesticides. A fourth is scheduled to be issued in November. In the biological opinions it has issued, the fisheries service proposes a no-spray buffer of 100 to 500 feet for ground applications, depending on the rate and method of application, and 1,000 feet for aerial applications. This applies not just to salmon-bearing rivers, but every ditch, drain, canal, and seasonal stream that could flow into salmon habitat, points out Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
Dr. Jim Cowles, environmental toxicologist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, has estimated that in Peshastin, in the Wenatchee Valley, for example, a 500-foot buffer would prevent growers from spraying 55 percent of the acreage. The EPA is supposed to implement the fisheries service’s biological opinions within a year, but the registrants involved in the first one have refused to change their pesticide labels to require the buffers. That biological opinion concerned chlorpyrifos (registered by Dow AgroSciences), diazinon (MANA Crop Protection), and malathion (Cheminova).
The National Marine Fisheries Service has been criticized by producers, grower associations, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture for failing to take into account current use patterns of the pesticides and failing to consider results of water monitoring studies that showed that pesticides in Washington’s surface waters were below the levels that would cause harm to salmon. Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, said that the water monitoring was done specifically in response to the Washington Toxics Coalition’s lawsuit to determine if there was a problem or not. “What the water monitoring data clearly shows is growers are applying pesticides properly, and we’re not getting them in the water.”
Grim, who grows apples in Washington’s Entiat Valley, said it’s obvious that NMFS did not take into account any economic impacts in compiling its biological opinions and assumed growers would use full rates of the pesticides and all apply them at the same time. “A worst-case scenario is different from what’s really happening,” he said. “If we need to mitigate, let’s do it based on what the real risk is.”
Growers can’t control pests if they have to leave part of their orchard unsprayed because that creates a refuge for pests, which can then reinfest the whole orchard, he said. “They need to consider the economic impacts and how that impacts our farming practices. It would make control of a lot of these pests impossible.”
Hansen said such measures would drive jobs and food production off the West Coast and not accomplish anything in terms of protecting salmon.
In September, a coalition of western grower groups called Growers for ESA Transparency (GET) filed a petition requesting the agency to establish procedures to receive input from the people who will be impacted by salmon mitigation measures. Hansen, a member of GET’s steering committee, said the National Marine Fisheries Service is required by law to assess the economic impacts and minimize harm to agriculture, but has not done so.
Such changes have become all the more urgent since the Center for Biological Diversity announced its intention earlier this year to sue the EPA for failing to act on 394 pesticides regarding their potential impact on 897 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. This could affect producers nationwide, not just in the Pacific Northwest, Grim said. “This will wake up the rest of the country.”
With the potential for many more biological opinions to be issued, it’s important that the process be changed immediately, he stressed.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture issued a report in August warning that U.S. farmers face an uncertain regulatory process that could severely restrict their use of hundreds of agricultural chemicals necessary to combat pests and diseases.
The department called for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service to establish a collaborative and transparent process, using a third-party mediator, and to agree on how to evaluate the effects of pesticides on listed species. It also said the agency and the fisheries service should revisit the biological opinions to update environmental data, assess the economic impacts of mitigation measures, and allow a reasonable amount of time to implement them.
The department presented its proposals at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s annual meeting in Delaware in September.
Grim emphasized that agriculture is not asking to change the Endangered Species Act. “That’s not one of the objectives we have in bringing this issue forward. We just don’t feel it’s being properly utilized when there’s a lack of transparency and stakeholder involvement to provide information we think is critical to the process. Growers should not be shut out of that process.”
Producer groups have brought the issue to the attention of legislators, Hansen said. “Because neither the EPA nor NMFS is listening, we’re going to our congressional delegations from Washington, Oregon, and California, and saying, ‘We have two federal agencies that are refusing to work together and because of that, growers and food producers are going to end up suffering. So, we need Congress to provide oversight and find a way to get those agencies to develop a workable process.’”