Administration Fails to Stop Foreign Pest Invasions

New Rule Could Triple Use of Ozone-Depleting Pesticide; Follows Series of Industry-Friendly Decisions on Chemical

WASHINGTON, DC (September 20, 2004) -- A new rule published by USDA officials Thursday could triple world-wide use of a powerful ozone-depleting chemical, while still not stopping foreign pest invasions. This new rule follows several decisions by the Bush administration to allow more use of the pesticide methyl bromide, which is supposed to be phased out in 2005 under an international treaty.

The new rule is intended to reduce infestations by insects and other pests that hitchhike on raw wood pallets, crates and other packing materials carrying trade goods into and out of this country. But even USDA admitted that treating these packing materials with methyl bromide won't keep foreign pests from reaching our shores, and that switching to other packaging materials -- processed wood (plywood and particle board), plastic, and metal -- would be a more effective way to keep out the bugs without harming the ozone layer.

"Hitchhiking pests are a serious threat to our forests and farms, but there's a better solution than blowing a hole in the ozone layer," said David Doniger, policy director for NRDC's (Natural Resources Defense Council) Climate Center. "The problem is using raw wood for packaging. The solution is to switch to other packaging materials that the bugs can't ride on."

Alien pests already have a foothold in our forests. For example, the emerald ash borer, a beetle brought in on cargo from China or Korea, has already destroyed millions of ash trees in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario and has also shown up in northern Virginia. Pests native to the U.S. have also infested forests in China.

Despite promising in 2000 to consider a transition to bug-free packaging materials, the USDA rule allows unlimited continued use of raw wood packaging, provided it is treated with either heat or methyl bromide. USDA expects most countries -- especially in the developing world -- to favor methyl bromide, causing world use to increase by as much as 102,000 metric tons (225 million pounds). That is double the total current use of methyl bromide for all other purposes world-wide. The new rule is set to take effect in September 2005.

Methyl bromide is scheduled for phase-out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and supported by subsequent U.S. presidents from both political parties. The accord is intended to protect the ozone layer, which shields us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation that increases risks of skin cancer, cataracts and immunological disease. Methyl bromide also causes prostate cancer in agricultural workers and others who are directly exposed.

The new USDA rule misuses a small exemption allowed by the treaty for "quarantine" treatment to keep food and other agricultural products free of pests. Until now, only about 10,000 metric tons of methyl bromide has been used for this purpose world-wide each year. The new USDA rule explodes this exemption by as much as 10 times, overwhelming all other efforts to phase out methyl bromide and reduce its threat to the ozone layer.

This new decision by the USDA follows a pattern by this administration of industry-friendly increases in methyl bromide use. U.S. production and use of methyl bromide was supposed to be eliminated in 2005 under the Montreal Protocol. But in August the EPA proposed exemptions to allow U.S. farmers to increase methyl bromide next year to levels higher than they used in 2003. Also in August, USDA proposed a new system of domestic exemptions that would allow farmers to increase use even above these levels.