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The EPA plans to retool its pesticide program in an effort to protect endangered animals

 Tractor spray fertilize field with insecticide herbicide chemicals in agriculture field and evening sunlight.
Photo: Aqua Mechanical via Flickr (CC BY)
Tractor spray fertilize field with insecticide herbicide chemicals in agriculture field and evening sunlight.

The EPA has completed less than 5% of its Endangered Species Act caseload in reviewing pesticides. Now the agency is proposing a new strategy for scrutinizing agricultural chemicals’ effects on listed species.

The Environmental Protection Agency is renewing its approach to pesticide regulation to address its longstanding challenge of complying with the Endangered Species Act.

The agency made its draft herbicide strategy available for public comment last week. The “multi-chemical, multi-species approach” is part of a years-long plan by the EPA to author new guidelines that would facilitate compliance with the federal act and to avoid the costly litigation that has arisen from EPA's inability to meet its obligations.

Ya-Wei (Jake) Li, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s pesticides program in the agency’s chemicals office, said the new strategy proposes a suite of mitigation measures to reduce the exposure of listed plants and animals to agricultural herbicides.

“And try to prioritize how we can still keep the tools in the toolbox for farmers, while protecting the most vulnerable of endangered species,” said Li. “That's really our big picture goal right now.”

The mitigations include different requirements aimed at reducing pesticide transport via spray drift, runoff and erosion. The EPA would still conduct more thorough Endangered Species Act reviews for listed species not covered by the new strategy.

“Traditionally, we have tried to address this problem by evaluating the effects of each pesticide on each of over 1,600 endangered species in the U.S.,” Li said. “And so for each pesticide that takes anywhere between four to 15 years, and we currently have literally hundreds and hundreds of pesticides that we have to complete this review for.”

The EPA’s inability to meet its requirements under the Endangered Species Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act has resulted in more than 20 lawsuits concerning over 1,000 pesticide products.

University of California at Irvine law professor Alejandro Camacho said the agency’s previous approach was meant to be very protective, but because of the EPA’s limited resources, it led to a massive backlog. He said the new strategy may be somewhat more effective.

“But it's still leaving species potentially exposed to harmful chemicals, but maybe less so than under the current process,” said Camacho.

The EPA’s draft proposal currently addresses only herbicides meant for agricultural use. However, the agency is planning to release a similar strategy for insecticides sometime next year.

Farmers are still hesitant about embracing the potential changes. Steve Thompson, the vice president of public policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, remains skeptical.

“The de facto effect of those mitigation procedures are just not workable,” said Thompson. “They're not reasonable, they're not cost effective. And they're really not possible in the real world to accomplish.”

Thompson said that his reading of the draft document suggests that the proposed mitigation strategies would make it impossible to use herbicides in a large portion of eastern Oklahoma. The way he sees it, the litigation making its way to the EPA will cause undue scrutiny on longstanding chemical tools that he says keep farms in business.

“The last thing that our industry wants to do is something that could be negative or destructive,” said Thompson. “But when the tools that they use to be able to do that continue to be attacked through the judicial process, it's a very frustrating circumstance.”

The EPA will close the public comment period on September 22 and will issue a final strategy early next year.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Juanpablo covers substandard housing and police-community relations for WNIJ Radio in Illinois. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.