EPA’s new method for determining how to evaluate the effects of pesticides on endangered species has been greeted with praise from the agricultural industry for offering a clear path forward for future evaluations, but sharp criticism from environmentalists for narrowing the universe of interagency reviews.
The method would be used as a framework for how EPA develops “biological evaluations” (BEs) on the impacts of pesticides on threatened and endangered species. A BE is the first step in determining whether EPA will consult with the Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries services under the Endangered Species Act, which could result in restrictions on the use of a particular pesticide.
EPA has been evaluating some pesticides under settlement agreements reached with environmental groups who have sued the service for not consulting under the ESA on the effects of pesticides. The ag industry has been frustrated, however, by the length of time EPA has spent on these evaluations and has been pushing for a way to streamline the process.
The 2018 farm bill kick-started the federal effort to find a solution with language directing the Commerce, Interior and Agriculture departments to develop “a streamlined process” to identify when EPA needs to consult.
A central part of EPA’s revised method is the use of historic pesticide usage data to predict future use, which ag groups had advocated, saying the maximum label rate is rarely applied.
The National Sorghum Producers, for example, said it appreciated the use of “real-world data reflecting how and where pesticides are being used when considering potential impacts on endangered species.”
And CropLife America CEO Chris Novak called pesticide usage data “an important part of this revised method and represents a major step forward by EPA to use the best scientific and commercial data available,” as required by the Endangered Species Act.
“Usage data can reliably predict how products will be applied based on usage volumes and patterns,” CropLife said in comments on EPA’s proposed method. “It is well established that pesticide usage data tends to be robust and reliable years after the introduction of products containing a new active ingredient.”
However, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other groups, in commenting on the interim method that was issued last year, called usage data “scant, inconsistent, unscientific, and unreliable."
In their comments, they expressed skepticism that EPA can predict future pesticide use by looking at a five-year average of historic pesticide use, saying EPA will not be able to foretell “cropping trends, pest outbreaks, weather, and the countless other factors that go in to pesticide use.”
In separate comments, CBD said “just because a pesticide has not been used on a particular crop in the past does not mean that it is reasonably expected not to be used in the future.”
CBD and other groups called for EPA to use the pesticide label to estimate usage. “The use of maximum application rates is the only scientifically defensible way to estimate pesticide exposures,” the group said in its comments.
But CropLife said in its comments that “accounting for actual usage rather than the maximum label rates is important to make the best judgment about exposure potential.”
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For its part, EPA said “data on pesticide usage is the best available data with which to forecast future use. The alternative assumption is that all potential use sites are treated simultaneously, which is not realistic or representative of what is happening in the field.”
But the agency also acknowledged that in certain cases, usage data probably won’t be able to predict future use. And it rejected an approach pushed by CropLife to use county-level usage data, saying “the data lack sufficient statistical rigor below state level.”
“Introduction of a novel key pest (e.g., Asian Citrus Psyllid and huanglongbing in citrus in Florida is one example), market shifts due to the introduction of a pesticide-tolerant crop, new uses, and certain other events have the potential to increase (or decrease) usage relative to historical observations, making some pesticide usage forecasts unsuitable for risk assessment use in certain circumstances,” EPA said in its revised method. The agency said it would consider those factors “to reduce the likelihood that unreliable forecasts of pesticide usage are used in assessments.”
EPA altered some of the more controversial parts from its interim method. For example, instead of concluding that a less than 1% overlap between a species’ range or critical habitat and expected pesticide use means that there would be “no effect” on a listed species — and thus no interagency consultation — EPA now will find that the pesticide use is “not likely to adversely affect” (NLAA) the species. That decision requires the concurrence of the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
To Jake Li, director of biodiversity at the Sand County Foundation’s Environmental Policy Innovation Center, the revised method is an improvement on the previous version.
The services “can always refuse to concur on a NLAA decision,” which he said was an “an acceptable outcome for me — definitely not ideal, but not a fatal flaw.”
Li, who has worked for years with industry groups to try to come up with a solution to the ESA-pesticides consultation issue, also pointed to EPA’s change to how it treats species on federal lands. The agency had proposed not performing any analysis on species found solely on federal lands, but now will evaluate it in a later part of the process.
“Rather than using it as a threshold for a ‘no effect’ determination,” Li said the services now will “have an opportunity to weigh in on EPA’s proposal to exclude a species based on occurrence on federal lands.”
To Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, EPA made some concessions but the overall result is the same.
“Usage data and a 1% overlap threshold are not conservative and are solely designed to remove species from being considered for protections,” he said.
The new method was used for two draft biological evaluations released the same day as the revised method. The BE on carbaryl (Sevin) found it was likely to adversely affect 1,542 species and 713 designated critical habitats, or 86% of all species evaluated and 90% of the critical habitats.
EPA determined methomyl (Lannate, Lanox, Methavin), was likely to adversely affect 1,114 species and 335 critical habitats, 62% and 42% of all species and habitats evaluated.
EPA officially released those evaluations Tuesday, March 17, which kicked off a 60-day public comment period on the draft BEs.
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