For months, chemical companies have waged a campaign to reverse findings by federal fisheries scientists that could curb the use of pesticides based on the threat they pose to endangered species. They scored a major victory this week, when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he would press another federal agency to revisit a recent opinion triggering such restrictions.
The struggle over an arcane provision of the Endangered Species Act, in which the EPA must affirm that the pesticides it oversees do not put species' survival in jeopardy, has become the latest front in the battle over a broad-spectrum insecticide known as chlorpyrifos. Pruitt denied a petition to ban its agricultural use after questioning EPA scientists' conclusions that exposure impedes brain development in infants and fetuses.
Speaking to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture on Wednesday, Pruitt said he plans to inform the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Fisheries Service "that there needs to be a consultation because we have usage data, frankly, that wasn't considered."
NOAA Fisheries issued a Biological Opinion on Dec. 29, which was publicly released Jan. 9 by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, finding that the current use of chlorpyrifos and malathion "is likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of 38 species of salmon and other fish in the Pacific Northwest and destroy or harm the designated critical habitat of 37 of those species. It found another pesticide, diazinon, could jeopardize the continued existence of 25 listed fish species and could harm critical habitat for 18 of them.
In allowing chlorpyrifos to stay on the market — the product is already prohibited for household products — Pruitt cited concerns raised by the Department of Agriculture, pesticide industry groups and an EPA scientific review panel about studies the agency used to conclude that the pesticide poses a serious enough neurological risk to ban its use on dozens of crops. One study, by researchers at Columbia University, found a connection between higher exposure levels to chlorpyrifos and learning and memory problems among farmworkers and children.
NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Kate Brogan would not say Thursday whether it was revisiting its opinion, but she noted that officials asked in November for a significant extension to finish the analysis. She cited an agency statement that the request's denial deprived NOAA of the chance to do "collaborative work" and "fully engage the public."
Earthjustice managing attorney Patti Goldman, whose group obtained a court order forcing the opinion to be completed by Dec. 31, said in an interview that NOAA could have released its draft for public review when it was finished in May.
"They blew it, they didn't do it," Goldman said.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email that officials would decline further comment as the two agencies "are still working through the reassessment."
Pesticide firms have questioned how EPA and NOAA reached the conclusions that led to the recent opinion, which outlined "prudent alternatives and reasonable and prudent measures" to reduce exposure, such as limits on aerial spraying and the creation of vegetative buffers along streams.
Janet Collins, CropLife America executive vice president of science and regulatory affairs, said Friday that the federal government's analyses "don't reflect the reality of pesticide use" in affected areas and overestimate the location of imperiled species that could be harmed by pesticide runoff.
Pruitt's push to revisit the opinion has thrust the government into new territory. Industry officials and environmentalists said they were unsure of the legal process going forward; EPA traditionally has one year to adopt protective measures in response to such an agency finding.
"I know what he wants to do, but I'm not sure that it's an option," Goldman said. "EPA has an obligation to determine that the pesticides it authorizes won't wipe out endangered species."
Or as Collins put it, "Everybody is asking questions, and nobody has any answers."
Earthjustice has been suing the government over this issue since 2001 on behalf of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources.
Federal and academic researchers have studied the links between exposure to pesticides and fish mortality for years. A paper published in October in the journal Ecological Applications, written by scientists from NOAA and the U.S. Wildlife Service, found that pesticide runoff causes between 10 percent and 40 percent of coho salmon within nearly half of range in the Puget Sound basin to die before they can spawn.
Other studies have shown this exposure can lead to abnormal sexual development in salmon and harm their ability to grow, swim and reproduce. In its December opinion, NOAA Fisheries also concluded that the risk to salmon and steelhead could imperil Southern Resident Killer Whales, which feed on salmon and are at risk of extinction.
Collins said pesticide manufacturers see the new finding as largely similar to the "Biological Evaluation" that the EPA issued on Jan. 18, 2017, which set in motion NOAA's more detailed analysis. She noted that Fish and Wildlife is supposed to issue its own opinion on the products' impact on more than 1,800 terrestrial species, but has yet to do so.
The three manufacturers of chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon — Dow AgroSciences, FMC Corp., and Makhteshim Agan of North America Inc. (Adama), respectively — wrote several top Trump administration officials in April to ask them to withdrawEPA's initial findings.In an April 12 email to EPA's deputy chief of staff for policy, Byron Brown, Dow AgroSciences lobbyist Megan J. Provost wrote she wanted to give him "a quick heads up" that the firms would be challenging the agency's conclusions about the three pesticides.
In the email, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the left-leaning Environmental Working Group and American Oversight, Provost questioned how the EPA could have concluded the pesticides would "likely" harm more than 97 percent of the species in question and 98 percent of their critical habitats.
"As such, we are asking that the [evaluations] be withdrawn because those work products did not provide a rational basis for further analysis," she wrote.
Representatives for Dow AgroSciences and Adama did not respond to requests for comment. FMC spokeswoman Cori Anne Natoli said in an email that her firm "is carefully reviewing" the recent opinion issued by NOAA and is working with CropLife America along with the EPA and others to address the issue.