Democratic senators led by New Mexico's Tom Udall want answers from EPA on chlorpyrifos and farmworker protections from pesticides before they'll agree to let a bill move forward reauthorizing the fee-based pesticide registration system that provides about a third of the funding for EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.
The House passed its version of a bill to reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act (PRIA) in March, and the Senate Agriculture Committee followed suit June 29. But about three weeks later, Udall put a hold on that bill, preventing its consideration by the full Senate.
In a July 18 letter, Udall (pictured above) and three other Democratic senators sent a letter to Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the panel's ranking member, saying they were concerned EPA was delaying rules to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure and strengthen certification and training requirements for pesticide applicators.
The senators – including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Ben Cardin of Maryland – also said they wanted EPA to reverse its March decision to deny a petition seeking a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos (Lorsban) and instead decide to wait until 2022 to finish the insecticide’s registration review.
More recently, in an Oct. 20 letter to Roberts and Stabenow, the group of senators – minus Cardin – amended their stance. Instead of requesting a reversal of the chlorpyrifos decision, they asked EPA to issue a “final decision” by Monday, Nov. 20 on environmental groups’ objections to the denial of the petition, which sought the revocation of food tolerances and cancellation of registrations for chlorpyrifos. They also asked the agency to respond to any other objections filed in the online docket within 90 days.
There are a “small number of reasonable actions” that EPA “must take to ensure a minimum level of public confidence in EPA’s pesticide regulatory program before Congress should reauthorize it on a long-term basis,” Udall, Booker and Blumenthal said.
EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although the senators wanted an answer from EPA by Nov. 20, no consequences will flow if the agency doesn't get back to Udall by today. The real deadline for action is Dec. 8, when the latest Continuing Resolution funding the government runs out, and Speaker Paul Ryan said he expects Congress to extend the resolution beyond that date as both houses work on appropriations bills.
Nonetheless, as the work of Congress winds down, there's a sense of urgency among PRIA advocates. "Hopefully the agency will be able to respond to the Udall letter in a fashion that will allow the senator to remove the hold," Croplife Executive Vice President Beau Greenwood said.
Udall “is discussing the path forward with his colleagues in the Senate and at the EPA, along with relevant stakeholders,” Udall spokesperson Jennifer Talhelm said in an email. “If these actions are taken, he will release his hold immediately and recommend to others that they do so as well.”
The Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council, joined by 10 farmworker groups, filed 46 pages of objections to the petition denial, arguing that EPA’s decision to leave chlorpyrifos tolerances in place until 2022 violates the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because EPA has not found chlorpyrifos to be safe.
The states of New York, Washington, California, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Maryland also filed objections in June, requesting a response by Aug. 5. When they didn’t get one, they wrote another letter to EPA, pointedly noting they were not waiving their rights to file a lawsuit over chlorpyrifos.
EPA had proposed to revoke tolerances in 2015 because “multiple chlorpyrifos uses exceed EPA’s drinking water level of concern with considerable frequency and present a risk of concern, with infants most at risk,” the groups said in their objections.
EPA also said there was enough evidence to conclude that exposure to chlorpyrifos “results in adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes in humans, at least under some conditions,” according to the proposal.
Chlorpyrifos isn’t the only thing the senators are concerned about. In their Oct. 20 letter, they said they want EPA not to weaken the Farmworker Protection Standard (FPS), which will be completely phased in by Jan. 1, or the Certification of Pesticide Applicators rule, which is now scheduled to go into effect in May. A lawsuit challenging that delay is proceeding in federal court in San Francisco; briefing appears to be complete and a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 8.
Talhelm said “Senator Udall feels the worker safety rules are so critical to health and safety that he wanted to push for an agreement that ensures the public has confidence in the law and that ensures workers’ safety isn’t eroded, especially for children working in agriculture.”
“The worker protection rule ensures that no child under age 18 could apply pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, which scientists believe damages children’s brains. Additionally, in other non-agricultural industrial settings, workers who may be exposed to chemicals have the right to access safety information directly, or through their designated representatives. This right should apply to workers in the agricultural sector as well. Given how sensible the rules are, he feels EPA should commit to preserving them in conjunction with PRIA moving forward.”
Another Senate aide familiar with the process said Friday that although there are ongoing discussions between EPA and Udall, there hasn’t been enough progress to cause him to release the hold, despite concerted efforts to get it lifted by a coalition that includes both the pesticide industry and environmental and farmworker groups.
Meanwhile, CropLife America and other members of the PRIA coalition are pushing for the hold to be lifted. “The Dec. 8 deadline is looming,” Greenwood said.
Another member of that coalition, NRDC “remains united with the coalition on passing PRIA,” said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Mae Wu. ”The coalition has met with Senate offices to discuss our support. NRDC supports PRIA because stable funding to EPA to review old pesticides can help reduce the use of pesticides that are more toxic to human health or the environment than previously understood by EPA.”
Greenwood said he thought the recent Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee meeting, where both the farmworker protection and pesticide applicator rules were discussed, helped advance the cause.
At the meeting, there was agreement on the 18-year-old minimum age requirements in both rules. The applicator rule has a waiver for family members, who can be as young as 16. And CropLife America President Jay Vroom committed to working with a small group to iron out any concerns about the designated representative provision.
“It’s in everybody’s interests that this be reauthorized,” Greenwood said of PRIA, noting that the revenue it generates from fees charged to companies seeking registration, tolerance or numerous other decisions on pesticides provides close to 34 percent of the $120 million budget of the Office of Pesticide Programs.
He said the number of full-time employees in OPP has declined significantly in recent years and that because of the uncertainty placed by the hold, “OPP is hemorrhaging staff.”
Virginia Ruiz, director of Occupational & Environmental Health at Farmworker Justice, said she heard a lot of consensus at the PPDC meeting on issues of concern to Udall and the other senators. But she also wants to ensure that EPA follow through on the farmworker protection and certified applicator rules.
The House version of the PRIA legislation provides reauthorization for seven years but the Senate’s is three years. Ruiz said that was the result of a compromise in the PRIA coalition. Farmworker Justice “agreed to a shorter reauthorization period with the understanding we will be watching the agency’s actions very closely and if we get to 2020 and (the rules’) protections have been undermined or removed, we won’t support” the next PRIA authorization, Ruiz said.
In addition to Croplife and Farmworker Justice, coalition members include the American Chemistry Council’s Biocides Panel, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, Biopesticide Industry Alliance, Consumer Specialty Products Association, ISSA‐The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.
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