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Op-ed: A lingering Trump-era regulatory trick could push orcas, salmon to extinction

The Biden EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service are not basing their pesticide risk assessments on the best-available independent science.

3 min read

In the Pacific Northwest there are no species more iconic than orcas, salmon and steelhead. But it’s well-documented that all of them are in deep trouble.

Yet, for decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shirked its legal duty to make sure that pesticides aren’t helping to drive the catastrophic decline of those and other endangered species.

To address that lack of oversight, the Biden EPA has ramped up its work with the two federal agencies responsible for assessing harm to protected species — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

So, it would be logical to assume that alarm bells would be ringing at the EPA after last week’s announcement by federal scientists at National Marine Fisheries Service that two widely used pesticides on vegetables and fruits — carbaryl and methomyl — could push all those Northwest species, as well as others, to extinction.

But despite the Biden EPA’s pledge to more aggressively address pesticides’ harms, whether the agency will put meaningful measures in place to protect endangered species from the two pesticides is far from certain.

Here's why.

Best available pesticide science

Thanks to a troubling allegiance to a regulatory sleight-of-hand put in place by the Trump administration, both the Biden EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service are opting not to base their risk assessments of carbaryl and methomyl — or any other pesticides — on the best-available independent science.

Instead, the agencies are taking advantage of an industry requested loophole created by Trump Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. That directive instructed officials tasked with protecting the nation’s most-endangered species to base their decisions not on where a pesticide can potentially be sprayed over the course of its 15-year approval, but on unverifiable past pesticide usage surveys from pesticide applicators.

Among the shortcomings of the Trump administration guidelines is that they fail to account for the actual on-the-ground risks pesticides pose year after year as their use levels and range of use change to meet new pest outbreaks and an ever-expanding acreage of target crops.

The less-protective guidelines were put in place in 2017 by then Interior Secretary Bernhardt after it came to light that the Fish and Wildlife Service had made devastating findings with regards to the widespread harm the pesticides chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon were likely causing endangered species.

As revealed in a New York Times investigation based on public documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, Bernhardt and other Trump administration officials were briefed on the Fish and Wildlife Service findings — including the fact that malathion and chlorpyrifos were each likely to jeopardize the existence of more than 1,200 federally protected species. Shortly after Bernhardt suspended the release of the Fish and Wildlife assessments to make way for the industry-controlled approach to assessing risks.

To its credit, National Marine Fisheries Service, alone, has refused to allow its analyses of pesticides’ harms to be influenced by the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict use of the best-available science.

National Marine Fisheries Service's steadfast allegiance to following the law rather than the pesticide industry’s wishes was made clear in the agency’s recent assessments of the pesticides carbaryl and methomyl.

Its assessment stated that, “Given the degree of uncertainty and speculation associated with” survey data, the agency could not simultaneously utilize it and ensure that species would not be put at risk of extinction.

Related: In 1996, the EPA was ordered to test pesticides for impacts on people’s hormones. They still don’t.

The agency concluded that if it used the Bernhardt approach of relying on survey data to predict where pesticides will be used in the future, then it “would underestimate the actual usage of pesticide[s] by more than 100 percent, approximately 29 percent of the time.”

The reason for this is simple: relying on estimates of past use of pesticides to predict future use ignores constantly changing pest pressures, emergence of new pests, development of pest resistance, regulatory changes to products, market changes, and the choices of individual end-users.

National Marine Fisheries Service officials are to be commended for their independence, diligence and adherence to robust science — practices taxpayers should be able to expect from every federal regulatory agency.

But as long as the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service opt to sidestep the best-available science and embrace the pro-industry Trump approach to assessing pesticides, the potential harm to hundreds of endangered species from pesticides will extend far beyond carbaryl and methomyl.

And that rejection of science is assured to routinely result in less-effective safeguards from pesticides that will not only facilitate ongoing harm to species but may help to push some to extinction.

About the author(s):

J.W. Glass

J.W. Glass is EPA policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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