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Court Approves NRDC-Led Coalition's Settlement with EPA; Agency Must Meet Legal Obligation to Regulate Pesticides

NRDC Pleased that Court Rejected Industry's "Flimsy Objections"

WASHINGTON (September 27, 2001) - Over the objections of the pesticide industry, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco issued an order Tuesday approving a consent decree between NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and other environmental groups, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agreement requires EPA to carry out its legal obligations to control the health risks of pesticides.

"We are pleased that the Court has swept aside the flimsy objections of the pesticide and chemical industry, and that EPA now is committed to carrying out many of its key legal duties mandated unanimously by Congress in 1996 to protect children, farm workers, and the general public from dangerous pesticides," said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney. "By upholding our settlement with EPA, the Court validated what we've been saying all along," noted Olson. "The pesticide industry didn't want EPA to do its job of putting public health before company profits. We feel satisfied and vindicated by the ruling."

The pesticide and chemical industries, lead by the American Crop Protection Association, American Chemistry Council, and other trade groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, used a range of tactics to delay approval of the settlement, which is embodied in a legally binding "consent decree," plus a separate "settlement agreement" on other issues. The industry groups legally challenged the consent decree, which originally was reached with the Clinton Administration and filed on January 19, 2001. The Bush Administration later reviewed and in March ratified the settlement, after obtaining NRDC's consent to make certain changes in the document in response to some of industry's concerns. The industry, however, continued to vehemently object.

The Court held that contrary to the industry's arguments, "the proposed settlement is fair, equitable, reasonable, legal, and in the public interest." After an exhaustive review, the Court's 32-page order rejected every industry argument, including contentions that they were unfairly excluded from the process, that they would be economically harmed by the decree, and that EPA would be forced to make decisions that were not based on "sound science."

In the consent decree, EPA agreed to implement some of the key congressional mandates in the 1996 federal pesticide law, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), and 1988 amendments to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

The consent decree requires EPA to:

  • assess, by August 2002, the cumulative risks of all 39 organophosphate insecticides (often highly toxic chemicals that are the most widely used insecticides in the nation);

  • determine on a specified timetable over the next year whether the carbamate family of insecticides (often toxic, widely used insecticides), the triazine family of herbicides (weed killers that often get into drinking water, including atrazine, the No. 1 herbicide in the nation); and the "chlor-" family of herbicides (widely used weed killers that also are found in many drinking water supplies) act together as cumulative poisons. Since the decree was filed in January, EPA already has preliminarily made some of these decisions. FQPA now requires the agency to ensure the public is protected from their cumulative risks;

  • decide on a specified timetable how it will control or eliminate the risks of 11 highly hazardous pesticides: phosmet, azinphos-methyl, propargite, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, carbaryl, benomyl, endosulfan, lindane, diazinon and metam sodium. (EPA already has taken action on some of the risks of a few of these pesticides, such as azinphos methyl and chlorpyrifos, but has not finalized how it will control their hazards); and

  • adopt on a specified timetable the necessary actions to protect farm workers from three of the most risky insecticides used on crops (azinphos methyl, chlorpyrifos and diazinon).

In addition, a separate settlement agreement also filed on January 19 requires EPA to meet a specified timetable to initiate a program testing for the effects of pesticides and certain other chemicals on the body's hormone-controlled endocrine system (to determine whether they are "endocrine disruptors"). Unlike the consent decree, which sets judicially enforceable deadlines, the endocrine disruptor settlement agreement is not directly legally enforceable. If EPA violates the settlement agreement's deadlines, NRDC's recourse is to re-initiate its litigation. In response to concerns raised by some animal rights advocates, Olson noted that the settlement provides that EPA will use validated non-animal tests when they are available, feasible and scientifically appropriate. The Court held that the settlement did not harm the animal rights groups' interests.

The consent decree and settlement agreement both stemmed from a lawsuit filed by NRDC and its co-plaintiffs against EPA in August 1999. The suit charged that the agency:

  • missed its congressionally mandated deadline of August 3, 1999, under the FQPA to review the most dangerous pesticides to ensure they are safe for infants and children;

  • failed to implement a program to test whether pesticides harm the body's endocrine system; and

  • missed deadlines for reviewing hundreds pf pesticides registered before 1984, under FIFRA.

The FQPA requires EPA to consider the vulnerability of fetuses, infants and children when determining "tolerances"-the maximum level of pesticide residues allowed on food. This child-protective standard was adopted after a 1993 National Academy of Sciences study, "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," found that EPA's approach to regulating pesticides failed to fully protect children.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

 

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