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Pesticide Ruling Alarms Growers

by Cookson Beecher
Capital Press, July 25, 2003

A legal decision that is expected to trigger up to 300-foot no-spray buffer zones near fish-sensitive waterways will have a huge impact on Northwest agriculture, say ag leaders and officials.

"It's looking pretty grim," said Lee Faulconer, a policy adviser with Washington state's Agriculture Department. "This is just one more of the continual pressures smacking agriculture between the eyes. Needles to say, we're concerned about the impact to commercial agriculture."

Alan Schreiber, president of Agriculture Development Group based in Eastern Washington and a noted expert on pesticides, warns that the no-spray buffer zones will hurt California growers the most and Washington and Oregon growers very significantly, with Idaho a distant fourth. That's especially the case, he said, when it comes to aerial applications.

In a legal order release last week, Federal District Court Judge John Coughenour in Seattle indicated that he will impose interim restrictions on pesticide uses that harm fish.

A coalition of conservation and fishing groups represented by Earthjustice wants him to impose no-spray buffer zones until the EPA completes a review on an array of pesticides, some of them widely used in commercial agriculture. EPA's deadline to complete the review is December 2004.

But the conservation and fishing groups believe that's too long to wait -- that fish and water quality need to be protected from the pesticides as soon as possible.

"Salmon can't escape pesticides and the harm they cause in our rivers and streams," said Erika Schreder of the Washington Toxics Coalition, one of the groups involved in the case. "This order means salmon will have a fighting chance while EPA does its job."

Las summer, Coughenour ruled that EPA had failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA Fisheries) during the registration process of 54 pesticides, many of which farmers in the Pacific Northwest use.

Here are the interim measures the conservation and fishing groups want to see put in place:

The court will hear the case Aug. 14 to decide on no-spray buffer widths required for specific pesticide uses and to decide whether to impose additional restrictions on urban uses of 13 pesticides frequently found in urban streams.

A final ruling will follow the hearing. No one knows yet when the buffer requirements would go into effect.

Heather Hansen of Friends of Farms and Forests, based in Washington state, said attorneys for the intervenors in the case will be suggesting that the buffers the conservation and fishing groups are seeking are extreme.

"They're looking for smaller buffers," she said.

About 30 ag groups are in the coalition of interveners, with the vast majority of them from Washington state and Oregon. Among those in the group are Friends of Farms and Forests, Oregonians for Food and Shelter, CropLife America, the Washington and Oregon Farm Bureaus, the California Plant Health Association and the Idaho Mint Association.

Hansen said she can't imagine any grower show farm is next to fish-sensitive waterways who wouldn't be affected by interim no-spray buffer zones.

"Some of these pesticides are more important to growers than others," she said. "Here in the Northwest, some are very important for potatoes, tree fruit and vegetables. And while others might not be used in large volumes, they're' critical for niche crops."

Schreiber has been doing some calculations that come up with a bleak picture for agriculture.

When looking at the average-size irrigated field in Washington state and what it would mean to shave 300 feet off the side adjoining a waterway, he figures it would decrease the size of the average field by a little less than 15 percent.

"Your talking about something of major consequence," he said.

He estimates that the affected land base will be even larger in Oregon, and that California's affected land base will be double that of Washington's.

When referring to California, Schreiber said that rice, cotton and tomato production will be severely affected by no-spray buffer zones.

Hansen pointed out that there are some other concerns associated with no-spray buffer zones.

"Buffers create reservoirs for insects and diseases as well as noxious weeds," she said. "Invasive weeds can establish in buffers and spread across farmland. Many Integrated Pest Management programs rely on controlling pests around the perimeter of a field. A buffer along one side can disrupt a pest-management plan."

Judge Coughenour's recent order represents just one of two fronts in the battle over tie issue of pesticides and their effects on listed species, said an ag representative in Washington state.

"This case is really about the Environmental Protection Agency's failure to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service, not about the pesticides, themselves," said Jim Jesernig, formerly the director of the state's Agriculture Department and now regulatory affairs liaison with the state's Potato Commission.

When talking about the "other battle front," Jesernig pointed to the ongoing process of developing "counterpart regulations" -- regulations governing pesticide use that will be the same for more than one federal agency.

Those counterpart regulations are expected to come out in mid-August and begin going through the rule-making process.

Earlier this year, four federal players -- EPA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and USDA -- agreed to work together to streamline pesticide consultations aimed at protecting listed species.

The Federal Register published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on this topic Jan. 24.

According to EPA, the government's goal in streamlining the consultation process is to ensure that the potential effects of pesticides on listed species are examined in a timely and comprehensive manner using the best science available.

As a result of EPA's ongoing reexamination of previously registered pesticides, as well as recent litigation, the agencies anticipate a significant increase in the number of future consultations.

Shortly after the notice appeared in the Federal Register, Steve Beckley, CEO of the California Plant Health Association, which represents the state's crop-protection and fertilizer industry, said EPA was moving in the right direction.

"We've got to stop all of the legal battles over this issue," he said. "it's the farmers who suffer. They lose products or are left uncertain about which products they can use and be in compliance with ESA."

Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, agreed.

"We support the agencies' joining together like this to come up with a consultation process," he said. "When making pesticide-registration decisions separately, EPA opened the door to lawsuits."

Jesernig said that "instead of flushing money down a rat hole in attorney fees" over this issue, agencies will be able to focus staff on pesticides that could jeopardize listed species.

"You never would have had Coughenour's ruling if counter-part regulations had been in place several years ago," said Jesernig. "The agencies need to get off the dime on this. Hopefully, they'll get this done quickly, and we can focus on the real problems out there."

He calls Coughenour's recent order a "classic case of the federal judiciary not understanding an issue and stuffing a one-size-fits-all approach down the industry's throat."

Cookson Beecher, Capital Press Staff Writer
Pesticide Ruling Alarms Growers
Capital Press, July 25, 2003

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