EPA's proposed pesticide permits raise questions
Farm Bureau says EPA should have clearly exempted farmers, ranchers
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The federal government has released a draft Clean Water Act permit for using pesticides near or over waterways, but the proposal still leaves many questions unanswered about on-the-ground implications for farmers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposal would require applicators to use the lowest effective amount of pesticides, minimize the chances of unintended discharges and monitor adverse environmental effects.
Some applicators would also be required to develop pesticide discharge management plans that involve additional record-keeping, depending on the purpose for treatment and how many acres are sprayed.
The American Farm Bureau Federation is nervous about important details that will need to be ironed out before the permits become official, said Don Parrish, the group's senior director of regulatory affairs.
The draft permit sets specific rules for controlling mosquitoes, animal nuisances, aquatic weeds and algae and forest canopy pests, but it leaves the door open for regulation of any other pesticide application near or over waterways, he said.
The Farm Bureau would have preferred if EPA clearly excluded farmers and ranchers from the permit requirements, Parrish said. Otherwise, agricultural pesticide use will be exposed to lawsuits from environmentalist groups that allege violations of the Clean Water Act, he said.
The EPA didn't sufficiently flesh out what it means to spray "near waterways," so it's unclear what proximity would fall under permitting requirements, Parrish said. The permit is also ambiguous about pesticides used near or over roadside ditches and seasonal streams, he said.
Restrictions outlined in the draft permit directly apply to about 35,000 applicators in six states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska and Idaho, according to EPA. Federal lands in other states would also be subject to the permit.
About 365,000 pesticide applicators in 44 other states will be subject to other Clean Water Act permits drawn up by state authorities, according to an EPA spokesperson.
There's a potential for some states to go above and beyond the EPA's proposal, Parrish said.
"Clearly, this is a model the other states will use," he said. "This will probably serve as the baseline for the states."
Charles Tebbutt, an attorney for the Baykeeper environmental group, said the draft permit should have demanded more from pesticide applicators, such as a "needs analysis" that would require them to explore alternative pest control methods.
"What I don't want to have happen is have the permit be a paper tiger," he said. "It should have real restrictions."
Modern conventional agriculture tends to "spray first (and) worry about what happens afterwards" even when other pest control methods could be more efficient and less dangerous, Tebbutt said.
"In many cases pesticides are the easiest response to a problem when more is necessary to address a complicated situation," he said.
The permit proposal resulted from litigation between Baykeeper, the EPA and other groups.
In 2006, EPA excluded pesticide spraying from Clean Water Act permitting, but Baykeeper challenged the legality of that decision.
A federal appeals court reversed the exemption last year and required permit rules to be finalized by April 2011.
The American Farm Bureau Federation tried to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the group's petition for review was rejected in February.