The US Environmental Protection Agency is changing how it evaluates the risks of pesticides to endangered species. Rather than rely on estimates of pesticide use based on maximum allowed values, the agency will use actual data that reflect how much of a given pesticide has been applied in a particular area.
Such data, however, are not available for all areas. Environmental groups claim that the updated method, released on March 12, will underestimate risks to endangered species because it excludes large geographical areas where there are data gaps. They also argue that the approach ignores the downstream effects of pesticides that run off into waterways and indirect effects, such as the loss of insect pollinators that feed on endangered plants.
In contrast, the pesticide industry welcomes the new approach. “Pesticide usage data is an important part of this revised method and represents a major step forward by EPA to use the best scientific and commercial data available,” Chris Novak, CEO of CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, says in a statement.
The EPA’s action comes after numerous lawsuits against the agency and delays in registering pesticides because of concerns about risks to endangered species. After years of discussions with the pesticide industry and environmental groups, the agency adopted an interim approach in 2015 that was intended to streamline the process. But when the EPA used the method and determined that the organophosphate insecticides chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion posed risks to more than 1,000 endangered species, the pesticide industry urged the agency to revise the approach.
In 2017, the Trump administration agreed to abandon the interim method. Under the 2018 farm bill, Congress directed the EPA to form a working group with several other federal agencies to, once again, streamline the process. The EPA claims that the resulting approach, which it first proposed in June 2019, is more protective of endangered species.
The agency has already used the new method to evaluate the risks of two carbamate insecticides—carbaryl and methomyl. It released those draft evaluations for public comment in conjunction with the updated method on March 12.
The two draft evaluations show that both insecticides are likely to harm more than 1,000 endangered species, including the whooping crane, San Joaquin kit fox, and all species of salmon, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. Even so, the EPA ignores the full range of impacts of the pesticides to endangered species, the group says. “It’s painfully clear that pesticides have a devastating effect on some of our most vulnerable species, and the Trump administration is intent on thwarting urgently needed protections,” Lori Ann Burd, the center’s environmental health director, says in a statement.