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EPA to allow use of pesticide considered ‘very highly toxic’ to bees

The agency says sulfoxaflor poses less risk than alternatives and is a critical tool for farmers.

Toni Burnham, president of DC Beekeepers Alliance, checks on the health of a honey bee colony where D.C. Water keeps four beehives on the rooftop of one of its buildings in 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The Environmental Protection Agency approved broad new applications Friday for a controversial insecticide, despite objections from environmental groups and beekeepers who say it is among the compounds responsible for eviscerating the nation’s bee populations.

Alexandra Dunn, head of the EPA office that oversees pesticides, said the agency was “thrilled” to be able to approve new uses and lift past restrictions on sulfoxaflor, which she called a “highly effective” tool for growers around the country — but which the agency itself considers “very highly toxic” to bees. The decision will allow the chemical to be applied to a wide array of crops, including citrus and corn, soybeans and strawberries, pineapples and pumpkins.

“EPA is providing long-term certainty for U.S. growers to use an important tool to protect crops and avoid potentially significant economic losses, while maintaining strong protection for pollinators,” Dunn said.

The agency’s critics, some of whom successfully sued the EPA in federal court during the Obama administration to restrict use of the pesticide, were anything but thrilled with Friday’s announcement.

“At a time when honeybees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before, EPA’s decision to remove restrictions on yet another bee-killing pesticide is nothing short of reckless,” Greg Loarie, an attorney for the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, said in an email.

The news comes during a time that commercial honeybee colonies have been declining at a startling rate. The annual loss rate for honeybees during the year ending in April rose to 40.7 percent, up slightly over the annual average of 38.7 percent, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit group associated with the University of Maryland.

Some of the losses have been associated with events such as massive wildfires in the west, the wet winter in the Midwest and hurricanes in the Southeast. But the bee losses documented over the past decade are often blamed in no small part on the increased use of fungicides, herbicides and certain pesticides.

Sulfoxaflor was initially approved by the EPA in 2013, but a collection of beekeepers and other opponents sued the agency over its use, saying studies made it clear that it was highly toxic to honeybees. In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that federal regulators lacked adequate data to show the pesticide did not pose serious risk to pollinators, and the court vacated the agency’s approval of sulfoxaflor.

In 2016, the EPA approved use of the pesticide for crops that do not attract bees, as well as for use on certain plants after blooming was complete. The agency also has repeatedly granted emergency waivers to states to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on certain crops because of a lack of effective alternatives for farmers — including more than a dozen such exemptions this year alone for sorghum and cotton.

"That helps you see how important a tool this is,” Dunn told reporters Friday.

In deciding to grant broad approval to sulfoxaflor, Dunn said the agency relied on a host of new, industry-backed studies that showed the insecticide dissipates in the environment more quickly than widely used alternatives, thereby lowering the risk to bees. In addition, the agency said sulfoxaflor often requires fewer applications than other insecticides, resulting in reduced risks to wildlife.

“Our data on this insecticide is among EPA’s largest data sets on the effects of a pesticide on bees,” Dunn told reporters, saying the agency had carefully considered its risks and benefits. “EPA highly values pollinator protection.”

She added that farmers must still abide by numerous restrictions when using the pesticide. For instance, it can be applied to certain tree fruits, berries and other crops only after they have bloomed. Restrictions also exist to prevent drifting of the pesticide in windy conditions.

Corteva, the agricultural division of DowDuPont, welcomed the EPA’s approval for what it called “critical” uses of the pesticide, saying in a statement Friday that “growers should have access to tools that can be used safely according to the product label.”

The Agricultural Retailers Association, which represents suppliers of seed and other products to farmers and ranchers, also praised the EPA’s decision.

“It is encouraging to see EPA take a hard look at the science about sulfoxaflor and its effects on pollinators and issue a science-based decision on its permitted use,” the group’s president, Daren Coppock, said in a statement. “This is how the system is supposed to work: scientific experts making science-based decisions.”

But Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program, called Friday’s decision little more than a gift to industry, and one that did not come with public input.

“Their failure to provide any notice of this decision is a new low for this administration,” Burd said in an interview. “But the worst part of this is that they know the effect; they know how significant this is. And yet they are allowing this even with the full knowledge we are in a pollinator extinction crisis.”

Burd said she expects opponents to soon take EPA to court once again over the pesticide.

“Their job is to weigh the risks versus the benefits,” she said. “But they are just touting the benefits and sweeping the risks under the rug.”