Five years ago, when President Nixon signed his name to a bill updating the nation's antiquated pesticide laws, there was no inkling in anyone's mind that the new regulation would become a virtual textbook case in bureaucratic chaos.
Even the name - the federal Enviromental Pesticide Control Act - has a tendency to produce yawns rather than curiosity.
Yawns from everyone, that is, but the people at the Enviromental Protection Agency who are charged with enforcing it.
Since its passage in 1972, accompanied by EPA's confident predictions that the nation's giant and highly dangerous pesticide industry would be firmly in hand by 1976, the following has occurred.
The number of pesticides EPA has managed to identify as killers and yank off the market under the provisions of the 1972 law is one - Kepone. And even that had to be helped along by massive publicity and the ensuing pressure on the manufacturer.
EPA officials now - after five years - say they won't even be able to finish testing more than 30,000 pesticides for 10 to 15 more years to find out which ones are dangerous. Meanwhile the pesticides, those suspected of being dangerous and those whose properties are unknown, will continue to be marketed with EPA approval.
To their dismay EPA investigators found that the files they so confident, predicted would carry them through the process of re-registering all the pesticide compounds marketed for the last 25 years are in disarray or simply don't exist. Even worse, the test data that make up the existing files are becoming more suspect every day, according to EPA officials.
Sen. Edware M. Kennedy (D Mass), one of the sharpest critics of the EPA program so far, noted after hearings on the subject last year that the agency had five years of warning from various sources that testing data submitted by industry were faulty. EPA, said Kennedy in a report issued last December, "has largely failed in its resposibility to assure the safe use of pesticides as mandated by Congress."
Congress extended the deadline for the re-registering of pesticide compounds last fall for another year, still receiving assurances from agency officials they would meet an October, 1977 deadline for determining which pesticides are safe and marketable.
EPA officials acknowledge now that there is no chance they will come close to meeting the deadline. In fact, the agency has moved back to what could be square one in its data review and has begun the formidable task of sitting through the pesticide information the agency does have on file in the basement of its office here in Washington.
The data file, described as a half mile of material, would require an ever, has grown from 600 to 1,000 since 1972, according to Johson.
EPA lost a bid this year to increase its pesticide staff by another 600 persons. As a result, agency officials now say it will take a decade or more to identify which pesticides already on the market are dangerous and that new horror stories involving pesticides are almost sure to come along is the meantime.
"What we have is a minefield out there, and nobody knows who's going to set off the next mine," said one official.
The regulatory agency has already established a list of 125 most suspect pesticide compounds for speeded-up review under its "rebuttable presumption against registration" (RPAR) program RPA's are "guilty until proven innocent," said a top EPA pesticide official.
Among those pesticides onthe RPAR list is toxaphene, the most widely use d pesticide in the world with over 100 million pounds spread mostly on food crops last year. Tests by the National Cancer Institute last year showed toxaphene produces as high as a 100 per cent tumor rate in laboratory animals.
There are problems even among the RPAR compounds. Offices in EPA with timetables for the program on their walls show numerous green tags indicating substantial slippage in the RPAR timetable.
DBCP and EDP, two pesticides which received wide publicity recently after being linked to sterility in pesticide plant workers and cancer in animals, were originally scheduled for RPAR reviews by EPA last fall. EPA officials said the reviews were held up because of manpower shortages.
Some critics in Congress and elsewhere charge that EPA's pesticide officials have bowed to strong pressure from the huge chemical and agricultural industries in supporting an amendment to a pesticide bill now before the House Agriculture Committee. The Amendment would allow new pesticides with strong similarities to existing RPAR compounds to go on the market with a conditional registration from EPA.
EPA pesticide chief Johnson acknowledged that his agency supports the measure. But he believes that in the agriculture industry new pesticide compounds, while potentially toxic will only replace those already on the market and won't increase the use of suspect pesticides. Critics have strongly challenged that assumption.
Johnson acknowledges that evidence is lacking to support EPA's position on the conditional registration of new but suspect compounds. But he said that a refusal to register them would only delay the whole pesticide process still further.
"If we don't register these guys," he said "they run to their congressman and he comes to us. We end up spending all our resources on the Hill arguing this and there's no thing left over to do the job."