WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2017 - The EPA is pushing back against a New York Times report that describes some of the internal deliberations leading up to the agency’s decision to deny a petition that sought to ban the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos.
In its story, published in the paper’s print edition Saturday, the Times cited emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request that it said “show how the EPA's new staff, appointed by President Trump, pushed the agency’s career staff to draft a ruling that would deny the decade-old petition by environmentalists.”
The article also described a meeting with Washington state Farm Bureau officials at which EPA chief Scott Pruitt said the administration understands the significant economic impact agriculture has in the U.S., and that he was looking forward to working with the farm community.
EPA, however, took exception to the article, accusing the Times of reporting “false facts” and “never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.” For good measure, the agency threw in a recent flub where the Times mistakenly said it was the first to report on a draft climate change report that had actually been posted online for months.
In particular, EPA was upset that the Times did not include the agency's full response to its reporting. EPA spokesman Amy Graham told the Times that “taking emails out of context doesn’t change the fact that we continue to examine the science surrounding chlorpyrifos, while taking into account USDA’s scientific concerns with methodology used by the previous administration.” But when the Times ran its article, it left out the “USDA” in front of “scientific concerns,” which EPA called a “drastic decision.”
“It’s clear the New York Times edited this one-sentence statement in order to advance their agenda and to get clicks, not because of the length of our statement,” Graham said today
Asked about which “false facts” the Times had reported and whether EPA had met with environmental groups before making its chlorpyrifos decision, Graham said the EPA statement “speaks for itself” but added that “editing our statement to omit reference to USDA’s scientific concerns is just one of several ways this story is misleading.”
Graham also did not respond to a question as to whether political appointees directed career staff to prepare the Federal Register notice denying the petition.
The Times article did note that EPA coordinated its decision with USDA and that USDA supported it. When EPA announced denial of the petition, the press release included comments from Sheryl Kunickis, head of USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy, who said, “This is a welcome decision grounded in evidence and science. It means that this important pest management tool will remain available to growers, helping to ensure an abundant and affordable food supply for this nation and the world.”
Chlorpyrifos, manufactured by Dow, is used on dozens of crops, including strawberries, apples, citrus and almonds, under the trade name Lorsban. Dow AgroSciences maintains that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products “offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”
But environmental and farmworker groups have been trying for years to get rid of the chemical. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network petitioned EPA in 2007 to ban it on the grounds that it causes neurodevelopmental harm through both drift and diet – specifically to the developing brains of infants and children.
After multiple scientific reviews and legal action by NRDC and PAN, EPA proposed in November 2015 to revoke all food tolerances for chlorpyrifos because it could not determine whether the “aggregate exposure from all existing uses,” including food and drinking water, was safe.
Under the safety standard of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, “EPA can only retain chlorpyrifos tolerances if it is able to conclude that such tolerances are safe,” the agency said in the proposal.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, as part of litigation brought by NRDC and PAN, gave the agency until March 31, 2017, to make a final decision. When it did, EPA said “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved and that further evaluation of the science during the remaining time for completion of registration review is warranted to achieve greater certainty as to whether the potential exists for adverse neurodevelopmental effects to occur from current human exposures to chlorpyrifos.”
That gave the agency until October 2022, when chlorpyrifos’ registration runs out, to make a decision on whether it should continue to be used.
Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman, who represents NRDC and PAN, said the groups are continuing to press their case. Both organizations, along with 10 others, submitted objections to EPA’s decision in June. In a brief interview Monday, Goldman said EPA’s decision does not conclude that chlorpyrifos is safe – a point also made in the objections.
Goldman also said EPA’s statement was misleading in several ways. EPA said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in July, rejected the environmentalists’ appeal of the March decision. Goldman, however, said the appeal continues, through the objections filed through the administrative process.
EPA also said that “despite having eight years to review the petition on chlorpyrifos, the Obama administration never banned chlorpyrifos.” But Goldman said that was clearly the direction EPA was heading. “They were going to ban it; that’s what the proposal was,” she said.
“I think in the end, this decision will not be upheld, but it’ll take a long time,” Goldman said.
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