Honeybees, NRDC's Lawsuit, and EPA's Discontent

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency registered its discontent with NRDC. Why? Because it claims we are overstepping by asking a public agency to share more public information.

Maybe you don’t view the behavior of honeybees as a matter of public interest. But how about the successful pollination of some of our most common food crops, such as apples, onions, cherries, even the vanilla that goes into your favorite ice cream? Personally, I view $15 billion worth of American food that bees pollinate each year as a public matter. Unfortunately, the government agency tasked with keeping our crops and environment safe failed to make its relevant information public.

A couple of weeks ago, NRDC had to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to hand over records about clothianidin, a pesticide suspected of playing a role in Colony Collapse Disorder—the name given to the rapid decline of almost 30 percent of the honeybee populations that pollinate our food.

No one knows exactly what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder, but France and Germany suspended the use of the pesticide because of concerns that it may be linked to the bees’ demise. Both nations are conducting further studies, and scientists and farmers around the world are eager for any pertinent information they can find.

The EPA Has Information That Could Help

That’s where the EPA comes in. Back in 2003, the agency gave conditional approval for using clothianidin in the United States, but it required the manufacturer to submit studies on how the pesticide might impact bees. 

Did the studies ever get completed and filed? What did the studies reveal? How did EPA evaluate the information in deciding to leave the pesticide on the market, and what else did the agency consider?  The EPA wouldn’t tell us, so we filed a Freedom of Information Act request. When the agency stonewalled further, we sued them. The EPA wasn’t happy, and it posted a letter to me on the agency’s website.

The Agency Asked Us to File a FOIA Request

We would prefer not to have to resort to FOIA requests and lawsuits in order to review documents that should be available to the public in the first place. It is costly and time consuming. But in this case, the EPA expressly asked us to file a FOIA request after it declined to hand over the records informally.

According to FOIA rules, an agency has 20 days to furnish the request, but the deadline passed and NRDC still hadn’t received relevant information.

Letters of Receipt Don’t Count as Substantive Information

The EPA claims it responded to our requests with two letters. The first one we received said that the agency had received our request. The second one (posted August 18, the day we filed our lawsuit, and not received until August 20) said that the agency still had not made a final determination on our requests.

This kind of bureaucratic reaction doesn’t count as a meaningful response to our call for scientific studies. And it certainly doesn’t meet the agency’s legal obligation to provide a final ruling on our FOIA request within 20 days.

You Call That Transparency?

In the agency’s letter to me, it claims the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Program “sets the bar” for transparency and public participation. NRDC begs to differ. The program has repeatedly refused to disclose information in response to FOIA requests until months or even years after the deadline. Several times, federal judges have rebuked the Office of Pesticide Programs in cases NRDC was forced to litigate regarding the EPA’s lack of transparency.

There has even been significant press coverage of the agency’s repeated private negotiations with the pesticide industry on key regulatory decisions—to the exclusion of public health and environmental groups. 

The Public Has a Right to Know

The most important issue here is that there is still no complete public record of the agency decision that NRDC is concerned about here: the EPA’s approval of a new pesticide dispute expressing significant concerns about harm it may cause to bees.

The agency has posted some information on its website since our lawsuit, but we will push until all relevant material is shared. We believe that a decision about a pesticide which might impact what the USDA says is one-third of the diet of the average American should be made openly. The public has a right to know.