Environmental groups sue EPA to force ban on controversial pesticide

The chemical has already been banned for residential use.

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Prominent environmental advocacy groups are taking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to court following a decision by the agency to reject the ban of a widely-used agricultural chemical linked to human health problems.

Environmental groups asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday to ensure that the EPA would ban all uses of chlorpyrifos, pointing to the agency’s own findings that found that the pesticide is unsafe.

The filing pointed to EPA’s own assessment from November 2016, which found that the insecticide is unsafe in food and drinking water and that the majority of cases of exposure “continue to exceed safe levels.”

“President Trump and his EPA flouted court orders and EPA’s scientific findings that chlorpyrifos puts children, farmworkers, their families and many others at risk,” Patti Goldman, the EarthJustice managing attorney handling the case, said in a statement. “We are asking the court to protect children by ordering EPA to take action now to ban chlorpyrifos.”

Chlorpyrifos is widely used on staple foods such as strawberries, corn, wheat, citrus, apples, and broccoli.

Late last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a petition by environmental groups to stop the use of chlorpyrifos, which has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to risks to fetal development and neurotoxic poisoning. At the time, he declined the decision on the basis that the agency needed to “provide regulatory certainty” for U.S. farms that rely on chlorpyrifos but called for further study on the issue. The Department of Agriculture supported the decision, saying that revocation of the chemical could cause international trade disruptions. The residential use of chlorpyrifos was banned 17 years ago.

The lawsuit — filed by EarthJustice on behalf of Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council — called on the court to “compel” the federal agency to take regulatory action, not engage in further study. It pointed out that Congress has directed the agency to act to protect children where scientific information shows that they are at risk of harm. The lawsuit also asked the court to order EPA to revoke “all food tolerances” and cancel of “all uses” of the chemical.

Congress has set a deadline of October 1, 2022 for the EPA to complete a review of the insecticide, but environmental groups hope legal pressure will get the agency to act now.

Many of the people who are affected may not be able to wait another five years for a conclusive decision. Chlorpyrifos has the biggest and most immediate effect on farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants, who are exposed from the food they eat down to the clothing that they may contaminate their homes with. And studies have linked prenatal exposure of the insecticide with lower IQ, poorer cognitive functioning in children, and brain abnormalities.

In a statement last week after Pruitt issued his decision, Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) said that the Trump administration’s actions showed a “blatant disregard for public health and for the wellbeing of our children,” cautioning that “it will not withstand inevitable court challenge.”

EPA scientists concluded last year that chlorpyrifos should ultimately be banned, but Pruitt claimed that more scientific research was needed.

Lawsuits are an increasingly familiar sight for the Trump administration, as it begins dismantling and ignoring Obama-era climate policies and scientific findings. Trump has called on Pruitt to repeal the Clean Water Rule, a regulation that defines which streams and wetlands fall under federal authority. And despite scientific studies on pollution and climate change, Trump issued an executive order to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s landmark climate policy to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, which could lead to more air pollution and reduced cognitive development in children.

After the Trump administration restarted the federal coal leasing process, environmental groups and a Native American tribe sued the agency, arguing the reversal exposes communities to pollution. The Trump administration is also being sued over its presidential permit to TransCanada to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.