The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the insecticide sulfoxaflor for use on corn, cotton, sorghum and citrus, as well as other crops, the agency announced Friday, saying it had concluded the chemical posed no significant risk to bees and that alternatives to the chemical are worse for the environment.

In addition to the aforementioned crops, the decision will allow sulfoxaflor (trade names: Closer, Transform) to be used on alfalfa, cacao, grains (millet, oats), pineapple, teff, teosinte, tree plantations, cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, watermelons, some gourds), soybeans, and strawberries.

“Sulfoxaflor is an important and highly effective tool for growers,” Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said. “It targets difficult pests such as sugarcane aphids and tarnished plant bugs, also known as lygus. These pests can cause severe economic loss.”

The decision prompted a quick response from the Center for Biological Diversity, which has criticized EPA for allowing use of sulfoxaflor repeatedly over the past few years by granting exemptions under Section 18 of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

“The Trump EPA’s reckless approval of this bee-killing pesticide across 200 million U.S. acres of crops like strawberries and watermelon without any public process is a terrible blow to imperiled pollinators,” said Lori Ann Burd, director of CBD’s environmental health program. “With no opportunity for independent oversight or review, this autocratic administration’s appalling decision to bow to industry and grant broad approval for this highly toxic insecticide leaves us with no choice but to take legal action.”

Cotton growers were pleased, however. “We appreciate EPA’s decision to make sulfoxaflor available for use on cotton,” said National Cotton Council Chairman Mike Tate, an Alabama cotton producer. “EPA has been diligent in requesting new studies of sulfoxaflor use on cotton and other crops that provided additional data for the agency’s scientific review per court order. The NCC will continue to engage EPA on crop protection product registrations and other regulatory matters that affect the efficient production of cotton.”

The decision removes restrictions that had been placed on sulfoxaflor's use. Growers had been required to use certain nozzles and avoid applications when wind speeds topped 10 miles per hour.

Dunn said on a conference call with reporters that without sulfoxaflor, “growers can see net revenue losses of up to 50 percent for certain crops."

She said there are few effective alternatives to control the pests targeted by sulfoxaflor. Alternatives that are more toxic than sulfoxaflor include organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids and neonicotinoids, she said.

"Alternative insecticides may be effective only if applied repeatedly or in a tank mix, whereas sulfoxaflor often requires fewer applications, resulting in less risk to aquatic and terrestrial wildlife,” EPA said in a news release.

EPA said it had looked at nearly a dozen new studies, most of them sponsored by industry, which Dunn called "common practice" for the Office of Pesticide Programs.

"The studies … show that sulfoxaflor disappears from the environment more quickly than alternatives, lowering risk to bees," she said. "The product label will include crop-specific restrictions and important pollinator protection language."

Sulfoxaflor has been a target of environmental groups since EPA first approved its unconditional use in 2013. Dow AgroSciences sought the registration.

The Pollinator Stewardship Council, beekeepers and other groups sued EPA over the approval, alleging EPA had not adequately examined the chemical’s impact on bees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ordering EPA to revoke sulfoxaflor’s registration, which the agency did in November 2015.

EPA came back with a proposal it finalized in October 2016 allowing use “only on crops that are not attractive to pollinators or for crop-production scenarios that minimize or eliminate potential exposure to bees.” That meant growers could no longer use the product on citrus, cotton, soybeans, strawberries, and gourds such as squash and pumpkins.

The agency also imposed conditions on its use, requiring applications be made with medium to coarse spray nozzles, and prohibiting application when winds speeds topped 10 mph. In addition, when blooming vegetation was bordering the treated field, a 12 foot on-field downwind buffer was required.

Nevertheless, since then EPA has frequently granted Section 18 “emergency” exemptions for use of sulfoxaflor. Last month, EPA announced it had approved its use this growing season on nearly 14 million acres of sorghum and cotton. More than half of the acreage is in Texas, but approvals also were granted for requests from Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia.

“Ten of the 11 states have been granted the approvals for at least four consecutive years for the same ‘emergency,’ ” the Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release.

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