A federal agency entrusted with protecting the health of Americans has finally gotten around to doing the job it’s paid to do by taxpayers. And once again, the only reason this agency is doing anything is because a court has ordered it to.
Back in 2000, and not without some pressure from outside organizations, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the in-home use of chlorpyrifos (also known by the brand name Dursban), one the most widely used pesticides, because it has been shown to have neurotoxic effects in humans, especially children.
Even though the EPA acknowledged at the time that the prohibition was necessary for the protection of America’s youth, the ban not only allowed Dow — the maker of Dursban and Lorsban — and others to continue selling home-use products containing chlorpyrifos for two additional years, it permitted the continued use of chlorpyrifos in crops for food production.
Then in 2007, concerned groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network North America — petitioned the EPA to consider a larger ban on all uses of chlorpyrifos, but to no avail; not because the EPA did the research and firmly concluded that the pesticide was indeed safe, but because the agency never made a decision.
Last summer, under pressure from a lawsuit by the NRDC to finally do something about chlorpyrifos, the EPA told the court that it would get around to proposing a rule by spring 2016.
This didn’t impress the court, which accused the EPA of deliberately dragging its feet on the matter.
“Although filibustering may be a venerable tradition in the United States Senate, it is frowned upon in administrative agencies tasked with protecting human health,” reads the order [PDF] from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court said that, rather than respond to the 2007 petition, the EPA had only provided “a litany of partial status reports, missed deadlines, and vague promises of future action.”
While acknowledging that science isn’t easy, especially when you’ve got public health advocates and industry tugging at you from both ends, the court still declared that the EPA’s “ambiguous plan to possibly issue a proposed rule nearly nine years after receiving the administrative petition is too little, too late.”
The court gave the agency until Oct. 31 to fully respond to the 2007 petition, but since that’s a tomorrow and good luck finding a bureaucrat on a Saturday, the EPA released a passive-aggressive announcement today saying that it is now considering a wider ban on chlorpyrifos.
“EPA is not denying the petition because we are unable to make a safety finding based on the science as it stands currently,” reads the announcement, which disregards the fact that the agency has had nearly a decade to respond. “EPA is not issuing a final revocation rule because we have not proposed it and have not completed our refined drinking water assessment, leaving certain science issues unresolved.”
So instead, the EPA is proposing to revoke all chlorpyrifos tolerances based on the science as it stands.
That science, claims the EPA, shows that there is no apparent danger from chlorpyrifos with regard to food, but people who get drinking water from watersheds where chlorpyrifos is used heavily may be getting too much of the chemical.
Today’s announcement does not definitely mean the end of the road for chlorpyrifos. Instead, it means that the EPA is throwing open the door to comments on the subject, with the goal of releasing a final rule by… Dec. 2016.
But if the EPA does move forward with revoking all tolerances of chlorpyrifos, that would have the effect of canceling all associated food uses of the pesticide.
The NRDC is, not surprisingly, okay with today’s announcement.
“If this dangerous, World War II-era chemical does make its final exit from our fields, farmworkers would be safer on the job and children would have the chance to grow up healthier, free from its toxic effects,” writes NRDC Staff Scientist Veema Singla. “We look forward to working with EPA to swiftly implement the ban.”