EPA listened to Agriculture Department, not scientists, in decision not to ban dangerous pesticide

The USDA also helped.

Almonds. CREDIT: Pixabay
Almonds. CREDIT: Pixabay

Officials at the Department of Agriculture helped convince the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to ban a controversial pesticide that has been linked to brain damage and other negative human health outcomes, according to new documents separately obtained by the New York Times and ThinkProgress through a Freedom of Information Act request.

After rejecting a ban on chlorpyrifos, a widely-used insecticide that acts by paralyzing the nervous system of insects, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told a Senate panel the decision was “based on the USDA communication to the EPA that the scientific basis that was being used by the agency was very questionable.” The new documents show that USDA officials attended meetings between the EPA and chemical agribusiness executives and strongly pushed for the EPA to set aside other scientific evidence of the pesticide’s danger to human health.

“Pruitt and his top political appointees relied solely on comments by Sheryl Kunickis, director of the Office of Pest Management Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to arrive at the decision not to ban the pesticide,” according to an Environmental Working Group press release. The group also pointed out that in a January 2016 memo, Kunickis strongly disagreed with a groundbreaking study that found chlorpyrifos harms children’s health.

“USDA and the agro-chemical industry should not be the groups that get to decide the fate of a highly toxic pesticide that can harm kids’ brains and put farmworkers and their families at risk,” Alex Formuzis, the vice president for communications at the Environmental Working Group, said in an emailed response to ThinkProgress.

Chlorpyrifos is used on agricultural crops including Brussels sprouts, almonds, walnuts, apples, oranges. The organophospate pesticide was barred from residential use in 2000. It has been linked to harmful neurotoxic side effects in humans like respiratory paralysis and death in high doses, according to the EPA. Current use requires workers to wear additional personal protective equipment during the application process. The pesticide is manufactured by Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical which donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

After Pruitt’s announcement, Kunickis wrote in an internal email to other EPA officials as well as an official from CropLife America, a lobbying group for the pesticide industry, “it is a great week for our growers and the decision is much appreciated.”

The more than 700 page of internal emails and records show Pruitt promised a “new day” for agricultural regulation during a meeting with a farming industry representatives to discuss the possible ban of chlorpyrifos. Internal notes from March 1  document that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told industry representatives that “this is a new day, a new future, for a common-sense approach to environmental protection.” Less than a month later, the EPA denied a longstanding petition by environmental, labor, and health groups to ban the pesticide.

When asked about the documents last week, Amy Graham, an E.P.A. spokeswoman told the New York Times, “Taking emails out of context doesn’t change the fact that we continue to examine the science surrounding chlorpyrifos.”

For farmworkers, the “fact” is that they are getting sick from chlorpyrifos. The most prominent research comes from Columbia University where researchers found chlorpyrifos exposure was linked to brain deficiencies and lower IQ among children and those with developing bodies. Under the Obama administration, the EPA had issued a final risk assessment in 2014 finding that chlorpyrifos is unsafe in drinking water and that it damaged the brains of children. Although pregnant women did not have precursors of acute poisoning, their children had statistically significant impacts like reduced IQ and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Under the previous administration, the EPA twice proposed a revocation of the pesticide on all food crops as regulated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. But the agency never finalized a rule banning the pesticide. After multiple delays, a federal judge gave the EPA a March 31, 2017 deadline to take action. Pruitt — in a reversal to his agency’s previous direction — announced on that date his agency would formally delay action on the pesticide’s use on food-grade products until 2022 to continue to study the impact of the pesticide’s effects. He justified the decision as a way to “provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farmers.”

“The fact that the federal government waffled, refused to pull this pesticide out of our food supply, puts our community at risk and it continues to subject workers to exposures we know are not safe and causing them harm,” Erik Nicholson, national vice president with the United Farm Workers, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. He posited that if the government says it needs more time to conduct studies showing the pesticide’s effects on humans, then farmworkers would — in a sense — be ethically entitled to consent.

“No consent has been obtained in the course of farmworkers being exposed to this chemical. They have been in many cases, un-consenting, in many cases, unknowing laboratory animals of the industry,” Nicholson said. “Even though, the title is ‘Ag[ricultural],’ it’s really exclusive of farmworkers. They have 9.9 times out of 10, taken positions that are contrary to supporting farmworkers having a safer, more just livelihood than not.”

The EPA and USDA internal documents provide a disheartening and unsettling revelation for environmental, health, and labor groups, who have diligently worked to stem the use of chlorpyrifos. As advocates who personally see the effects on farmworkers and children, they are concerned that the USDA’s oversight over chlorpyrifos could do more serious damage in the future.

“It seems like even in the face of significant evidence, the EPA is really reticent to imposing restrictions on pesticides and how they’re used,” Melanie Benesh, EWG’s legislative attorney, said in a phone interview. “Even when they decided to deny the petition and not to ban chlorpyrifos — which is not a health-based factor — it seems like these kinds of economic considerations, considerations of how much farmers want to continue using these pesticides, is going to outweigh the real concerns of human health. And of course the people most affected by that are the farmworkers handling the pesticides every day and communities nearby where these pesticides are being sprayed.”

Environmental advocates like Patti Goldman, managing attorney at the advocacy group Earthjustice, argued that involving the USDA in EPA’s decision-making process on pesticides is problematic, in part because it provides cover for the EPA to align its interests with chemical and agri-businesses.

“I think [the EPA] is abdicating to industry, both the chemical companies and Ag, and maybe referring to USDA to give some semblance of reasoning for doing what they’re doing,” Goldman said in a phone interview Thursday. “USDA has not done a risk assessment. All USDA did was submit comments on one of the subsequent risk assessments that tried to protect children’s brains… but it was not scientists that did a critique. It wasn’t anybody charged with deciding what the risks are. It’s basically input from an agency that’s looking at impacts of losing a pesticide for agriculture, offering a view.”

“It signals that farmworkers are going to have to continue bearing a lot of that chemical burden,” Benesh added.