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Bush Eases Pesticide Rules

by Hal Bernton
The Seattle Times, July 30, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday made it easier for the government to approve pesticides used by farmers and homeowners, saying it no longer would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to first consult other federal agencies to determine whether a product could harm endangered species.

The change affects federal regulations that carry out the Endangered Species Act, a law that protects about 1,200 threatened animals and plants.

Federal officials portrayed the action as a more efficient way to ensure the species are protected from pesticides sprayed across the landscape. They were also cheered by pesticide, farm and forestry groups, which have been put on edge by conservation lawsuits challenging the use of pesticides near lands and streams that harbor protected species. The most high-profile of these suits earlier this year resulted in a Seattle federal judge imposing a temporary ban on spraying 38 pesticides along thousands of miles of Northwest streams.

"We don't expect miracles overnight but we do think it will help," said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which represents farmers and timber operators.

Conservationists attacked the rule change as another example of the Bush administration weakening protections for endangered species, including Northwest salmon that are sensitive to low levels of some pesticides.

EPA will do its own science review of pesticide risk. But conservationists said those reviews would not be as thorough as those conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As evidence, they point to a draft letter that NOAA scientists sent to the EPA earlier this year. The letter challenged an EPA finding that 28 pesticides were not likely to harm protected salmon rums.

"The EPA's science is not the best available science," said Erika Schreder of the Washington Toxics Coalition. "And the administration is trying to get away with not finding harm by not using the science that would find the harm."

The federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires the EPA to consult with federal fishery and wildlife agencies over the registration of pesticides that might harm protected species, a complex task involving hundreds of chemicals. And over the past few decades, few of those reviews ever got done.

The new rules will allow the EPA to skip the consultation so long as EPA scientists determine the chemicals are not likely to harm endangered species.

The rule changes came after pesticide-industry officials became concerned about the filing of more than a half dozen lawsuits around the country over the EPA's failure to consult other federal agencies on the pesticide risks.

"We were asking the EPA for some regulatory certainty," said Allan Poe, a spokesman for CropLife America, which represents pesticide distributors and manufacturers. "I'm going to stop short of saying that we asked for a rule change. We asked for clarification of the issue."

CropLife has some of its biggest concerns in the Northwest, where the Washington Toxic Coalition and other groups filed a lawsuit over the EPA's failure to consult about the risks pesticides pose to threatened and endangered salmon runs. U.S. District Judge John Coughenour's order temporarily banned the use of 38 pesticides near many Northwest salmon streams until the EPA completed its risk consultation.

The spray bans have caused a lot of confusion and frustration among farmers and other landowners as they try to determine what streams are protected by the court order, said Hansen, of the farmers and timber operators group.

She said she hopes the rule changes will speed up the consultations and result in most of the no-spray zones being shrunk or eliminated.

But conservation groups say the pesticide runoff poses significant hazards to salmon, and in their lawsuit they cited studies that noted low levels of some pesticides runoff can have subtle but significant effects on salmon.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has repeatedly sued the government to force species protection, reported this week that pesticides aggravate the plight of nearly a third of all threatened and endangered species.

Related Sites:
List of 54 Pesticides under review.

Related Pages:
Research Suggests Pesticides Disrupt How Salmon Smell

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton, The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
Judge Favors Pesticide-free Zones on some West Coast Salmon Streams
The Seattle Times, July 30, 2004

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