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A move to ease pesticide laws
San Francisco Chronicle


March 02, 2006

A little-noticed section of a congressional bill to overhaul the Endangered Species Act would give federal regulators a five-year pass from seeking expert scientific advice from wildlife agencies on the harmful effects of pesticides on rare animals and plants, a move environmentalists say would further threaten hundreds of species.

The Environmental Protection Agency evaluates insecticides and herbicides up for registration or, every 15 years, for re-registration. Under the law as it is now, if it finds evidence that a pesticide could affect animals and plants protected by the act, the agency must consult with wildlife agencies before approving its use.

Environmental groups say it is crucial that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have an opportunity to present scientific studies showing effects of chemicals on animals and plants because the groups have used the evidence in court to force the EPA to limit the use of dozens of pesticides.




But under the bill by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., for five years the agency would not have to seek the expertise of wildlife agency scientists over how pesticides could affect the imperiled species.

The bill would eliminate key provisions of the nation's toughest environmental law safeguarding the 1,272 listed species of plants, birds, fish, amphibians, insects and mammals in the wild. The bill already has passed the House and is expected to find support in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The pesticide changes and other major revisions are opposed by environmental groups, and local governments and states across the nation are passing resolutions in support of the original 1973 act.

"We see the act as a safety net for wildlife, and the Pombo bill cuts a hole in that net," said Sarah Matsumoto, field director of a nationwide coalition of 360 conservation, religious and hunting and fishing groups that want to save it.

In past years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has raised concerns about harm to listed species from pesticides, among them 2,4-D, atrazine, diazinon and endosulfan. In 2002, the agency wrote the EPA saying that the insecticide endosulfan, under consideration for re-registration at the time, could kill or disrupt endocrine systems of fish, birds, amphibians and mammals even at normal applications. Endosulfan should not be re-registered, the agency said.

But as of 2004, the EPA had registered 103 products with endosulfan for general use and about 60 special uses, according to Jeff Miller, wildlands coordinator at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

In response to a lawsuit the group filed in the case of the red-legged frog, a judge ruled that the EPA was in violation of the act because it didn't consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service over 66 pesticides, including endosulfan. The center filed a motion in January asking the judge to restrict the use of endosulfan in key frog habitat throughout California.

The original pesticide-review requirement was written into the Endangered Species Act to protect the hundreds of sensitive species at risk of extinction from poisons used on farms, forests and households. Pesticides were a major factor contributing to the decline of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California brown pelican and other species, and DDT was banned in 1972.

Pesticide industry representatives have been lobbying for years to remove the requirement, and they support it in the Pombo bill. They have argued that the EPA is the expert agency and that the pesticides don't need further scrutiny from the wildlife agencies if the EPA has carefully reviewed pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Recovery Act.

Kenneth Weinstein, an attorney representing Syngenta Crop Protection Inc. and CropLife America, has argued for the five-year delay on behalf of his clients in courts and in Congress. For several years, the EPA has conducted a general ecological assessment on pesticides that "provides a basic level of protection for all wildlife, including endangered species. So they're not without protection," he said.

"What still needs to be done is the individualized assessment for every pesticide for every one of the 1,200 endangered species. The Pombo bill lets that process play out. It lets the EPA do its job without having courts breathing down its neck telling the agency how to do its job," Weinstein said.

Republican leaders in the House and the Senate, including Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, support a major revision of the act.

Pombo said that when he took office in 1993, he saw the Endangered Species Act creating problems for private property owners and tried to fix it.

"What I've learned over the last 13 years is that the law didn't work at helping species. The only way you could fix both problems is to bring property owners in as part of the solution" by offering incentives and forming a cooperative relationship, he said.

Perhaps the most far-reaching proposal would eliminate a requirement that federal resource agencies designate acres of habitat that are deemed critical for the recovery of a species and replace it with voluntary recovery plans. The Pombo bill also includes dozens of other changes, long sought by opponents of the act, who include lobbying groups for developers, builders, ranchers and growers who want payment from the government if the act interferes with plans to alter land.

In preparation for a fight in the Senate perhaps as early as this month, moderate Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., chairman of the fisheries, wildlife and water subcommittee, has tried to win a bipartisan compromise. Chafee initiated a drive with other senators to use the mediation services of the nonprofit Keystone Center in Colorado, which helped his father, the late Sen. John H. Chafee, win bipartisan support for amendments to endangered-species laws a decade ago.

But the efforts failed last week after the parties couldn't agree on ways to change the act. Inhofe, who supports Pombo's bill, said he would bring up a workable bill for a vote by the end of March. The Democratic leadership is talking with its Republican counterparts but is leery of changes that would weaken the act.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sees the Pombo bill as gutting the original act and says the "kind of blanket exemption to exclude pesticides from the consultation process required by the Endangered Species Act will be harmful not only to endangered species but also to human health."

Conservation groups also caution that the proposed reduction in pesticide scrutiny over the next five years would come as the Bureau of Land Management plans to spray 18 herbicides, including four new ones, on 932,000 acres of public land in 17 Western states.


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Ketchikan, Alaska