Pesticide industry bill would axe Clean Water Act protections

Lake Selmac.JPG

David Bianco’s rose farm in Selma, Oregon sits next to a private forest whose owners plan to conduct aerial spraying of herbicides.  Lake Selmac, a popular recreational lake and campground, sits just half a mile from the forest. David, along with some of his fellow residents of McMullen Creek, have been fighting to stop the planned spraying. He’s raised concerns about the impact the herbicide might have on his roses, the impact it has on his father-in-law’s health, and the impact it might have on Lake Selmac. 

        Photo: Jeremy McWilliams

He has a right to be concerned.  Pesticides are, by design, poisons made to kills things.  Many of our waterways are already impaired by pesticide contamination. And now, if special interests have their way, people like David and his neighbors will lose a critical tool to keep pesticides out of their local waterways. The Senate is poised to pass a bill that would completely remove Clean Water Act protection of our waters from pesticide contamination. 

Let me repeat that: the Senate is poised to pass a bill that would completely remove Clean Water Act protection of our waters from pesticide contamination. This is madness. How could this happen?

Thanks to disingenuous catchphrases and a cleverly selected bill name, the pesticide manufacturers were able to convince many in the House of Representatives to vote for H.R. 872, and now the Senate is all that stands between this bill and the President’s desk.  Unfortunately, the true effect of the so-called “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011,” which should more appropriately be called the “Reducing Environmental Protections Act of 2011,” can’t be wrapped into quick sound bites. These special interests used the complexity of this issue to turn Congressmen who typically work to protect the public health into conspirators in exposing our waterways and our bodies to more pesticides. 

The same efforts are now underway to quietly usher this terrible bill through the Senate. But with just a bit of education, we’re hoping that our lawmakers will see through the smoke and mirrors and oppose this bill. Here’s a quick primer on what the pesticide industry isn’t saying about the laws. 

We have two key laws that deal with pesticide contamination in our water. First, there is the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FIFRA, for the most, is about getting pesticides to market. Under this law, a pesticide manufacturer must apply to EPA to have its product registered, at which point the pesticide can be sold and distributed in the U.S. As part of the application, the manufacturer must submit to EPA results from  toxicity and other tests to show that, in general, the pesticide will not cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment when used according to the label. When EPA decides whether to register a pesticide, it will consider the data submitted by the manufacturer and consider the potential health and environmental impacts. The end product is a label on the product that sets forth the way the pesticide can be legally used. The label is the law.

Then we have the Clean Water Act, which focuses on the use of pesticides that are sprayed directly into or near waterways. If a pesticide applicator—the person or business actually discharging the pesticide—needs to spray a pesticide into or near a water body, the applicator must obtain and comply with a Clean Water Act permit. This permit specifically requires the applicator to take certain actions that can reduce the amount of pesticide that is released into the water body.

The difference between these two protections is important. Under FIFRA, EPA sets forth the maximum amount of pesticide that can be used without causing unreasonable adverse effects on human health and the environment. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA requires certain steps be taken when a pesticide is used with the goal of minimizing the amount of pesticide that goes into our waterways. 

FIFRA alone cannot adequately protect waterways from contamination. The requirements under the Clean Water Act permit are different from (and more environmentally protective than) the FIFRA label requirements. For example, EPA’s proposed general permit for pesticides applied directly to water requires applicators to consider other non-chemical methods of controlling pests, prohibits use of any pesticide into a water body that is already impaired by that pesticide (or its by-product), and specifies the types of records that must be kept (among many other things). None of these things is required under FIFRA. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation has said that this bill would fix the issue of “duplicative pesticide permitting requirements facing farmers, ranchers and others who use pesticides."  But actually, not only are the Clean Water Act protections not duplicative, but the permitting requirements do not apply to farmers or ranchers. The permit at issue here specifically cover four types of spraying in water and at water’s edge: mosquito and other flying insect pest control, weed and algae pest control, animal pest control and forest canopy pest control. Land applications of pesticides are not covered. Only those farmers whose crops grow in water bodies would be covered by these permits; farmers and ranchers’ land applications of pesticides are not covered. 

In my earlier post, I mentioned that we have many pesticide-impaired water bodies in the U.S. One commenter noted that the pesticides impairing those streams are not the aquatic pesticides at issue in EPA’s permit and therefore that they do not impact water the way I claim. He’s right – these aren’t the pesticides causing the impairments that we know of. The fact is that our waters are rarely – if ever – tested for the presence of aquatic pesticides; but if they were, we might find even more impaired water bodies.  Furthermore, the last thing you want to do to any water body already contaminated with pesticides is to add more pesticides to the mix. One of the major flaws in the FIFRA registration process is that EPA does not look at the effect of different pesticides have on human health and the environment when they are mixed together. In the real world, no pesticide is discharged in a vacuum; the Clean Water Act takes this real world circumstances into account, but FIFRA does not. 

The truth is that without these permits and without the Clean Water Act, we could see a growth in rivers, lakes and streams impaired by pesticide contamination. We could see more massive fish kills from improperly applied pesticides seeping into normally pristine water bodies. We could see more pesticides contaminating our drinking water sources.  We will have fewer water bodies to fish in, to swim in and to drink from.

When it comes to laws about poisons, don’t we want our decision-makers to base their decisions on reality, and not on catchy sound bites?

Please help stop this sneaky bill. Find your Senators’ phone numbers here. Call them and tell them to oppose the bad pesticides in water bill S.718.