By Brian Gumm, Center for Effective Government
Before leaving for Congress’ traditional August recess, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee rammed through a bill that would make it harder to protect our lakes, rivers, and streams from pesticide pollution. The committee passed the bill without holding a single public hearing on the issue.
The misnamed Sensible Environmental Protection Act (S. 1500) has a rather colorful history. Introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and co-sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Carper (D-DE), and several others, it seeks to legislatively reinstate a deregulatory rule established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the George W. Bush administration.
The rule exempts agribusiness operations and others who use pesticides from pollution permit requirements under the Clean Water Act if they follow pesticide label instructions, even if excess amounts of these toxic chemicals enter the nation’s water supply. Clean Water Act permits are not a formality. Rather, they’re a key tool that EPA uses to keep our water clean and to minimize the impacts of pollution on wildlife and natural resources. Local citizens also have input on pollution permitting decisions.
Under the Clean Water Act, pesticides themselves aren’t considered “pollutants” that require permits. However, excess amounts of these chemicals, beyond what is needed to control pests, are considered pollution if they contaminate water. But the Bush administration’s EPA used tortured logic to claim that excess pesticides aren’t pollutants from a specific source. It never fully explained how or why this was the case.
However, in 2009, the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed with EPA in a case brought by public interest groups, including the Waterkeeper Alliance. The court threw out the rule when it determined that excess pesticides that end up in lakes, rivers, and other water bodies are pollutants that require permits. Agricultural and pesticide industry trade associations, including CropLife America, intervened in the case and have been fighting the ruling for years, pushing lawmakers to use legislation to reverse the court’s decision.
Corporate lobbyists are pushing to stop the use of permits to measure and reduce pesticide pollution.
The agricultural industry has spent more than $67 million lobbying Congress so far in 2015; CropLife America alone has spent more than $1 million. Agribusiness interests have also funded the political campaigns of the bill’s sponsors, making more than $285,000 in contributions to Crapo since 2010, more than $275,000 to McCaskill, and another $91,000 to Carper.
The American people want our government to protect public health and natural resources, but our national pesticide law isn’t working.
Industry representatives assert that if everyone follows the instructions on pesticide labels, it will satisfy the requirements of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. They claim this will protect our waters from pesticide contamination. But this argument is flawed in two important ways.
First, it ignores the fact that some pesticides receive “conditional registrations” from the EPA –companies can introduce their products on the market without a full submission of all health and safety studies. That means the pesticides may not be as “safe” as industry claims they are. Inactive pesticide ingredients could also pose dangers, but we don’t know how significant the risks are because industry regularly claims trade secrets exemptions so companies don’t have to list additives on their product labels.
Second, when pesticides or their residues end up in our water, they can threaten our health. Emerging scientific evidence suggests that even small amounts of chemicals can build up in our bodies over time, and without pollution permits, the EPA has no way of calculating how much of what substances are entering the water supply. Surface waters like lakes and rivers serve as drinking water sources for 67 percent of Americans, so this is no small concern.
The American people want their government to make decisions that protect public health and natural resources, and they want agencies to be able to effectively enforce standards and safeguards. This bill would subvert the ability of the EPA to protect our water from pesticides. A decision this momentous should not be hurried through Congress without public hearings in an attempt to keep those affected in the dark. This bill and this issue deserve full-throated public debate.