House votes to undo pesticide protections for nation’s waterways

Opponents say Republican-led bill takes away the public’s right to know about pesticides.

Pesticides and other pollutants that run off into waterways are killing salmon in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Pesticides and other pollutants that run off into waterways are killing salmon in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to pass a bill that dismantles a pesticide permitting system. Opponents are calling the Republican-led legislation the “Poison Our Waters Act.”

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), the sponsor of H.R. 953, said the permitting system for the use of pesticides under the Clean Water Act is redundant. The legislation, whose real name is the “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2017,” will lift bureaucratic burdens on farmers, ranchers, and local pest control agencies, Gibbs said.

Under the bill, anyone applying a pesticide that the Environmental Protection Agency has approved under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act would no longer require a Clean Water Act “general permit.”

Currently, though, the overwhelming majority of pesticide applicators can get a general permit with very few restrictions on spraying. Only the largest-volume applicators must receive a more stringent individual permit. No permit under the Clean Water Act is required for normal farming operations.

In a 256–165 vote, the bill passed the Republican-dominated House on Wednesday. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate. Twenty-five House Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), who represents Bucks County and portions of Montgomery County north of Philadelphia, was the only Republican to vote against the bill.

“This bill takes away the public’s right to know about toxic pesticides we may be exposed to,” Mae Wu, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “It eliminates the current commonsense requirement that communities should have access to basic information about what’s being sprayed in waters that can pose risks for public health.”

Pesticide manufacturers have long championed a bill similar to Gibbs’ that would allow pesticides to be sprayed directly into water bodies. Nearly 2,000 U.S. waterways do not meet water quality standards because of pesticide contamination, according to environmental group Earthworks.

“To get to the bottom of and address this pesticide pollution, we need to know what is causing it — but this bill does the exact opposite, making it harder to keep our communities safe and putting people’s health at risk,” Earthjustice senior legislative counsel Marjorie Mulhall said in a statement.

A more apt name for the bill would be the “Poison Our Waters Act,” said the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which said the bill’s sponsors are “trying to take away our right to know when pesticides are sprayed into our waterways.”

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), the sponsor of the bill, stated the permitting system for the use of pesticides under the Clean Water Act is redundant.
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), the sponsor of the bill, stated the permitting system for the use of pesticides under the Clean Water Act is redundant.

In the last Congress, Republicans introduced an identical bill named the “Zika Vector Control Act” in the hopes of using the public-health emergency surrounding the Zika virus as a scare tactic to enact the legislation into law, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“A day after the Trump administration’s budget proposed eviscerating the EPA, the House voted to begin making that vision a reality,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This dangerous loophole would benefit pesticide giants like Dow Chemical and leave the rest of us totally unaware of toxic chemicals going into our rivers and lakes.”

At a 2015 congressional hearing, Ken Kopocis, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for water, said his agency had not been made aware of any issues associated with the pesticide general permit system. “Nobody has brought an instance to our attention where somebody has not been able to apply a pesticide in a timely manner,” Kopocis said.

But Gibbs contended that his bill “corrects” a 2009 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that required people to obtain permits from the EPA for the use of certain pesticides that have already been “regulated, tested, and approved” by the agency.

“This is important legislation that fixes a bad court decision requiring a costly, unnecessary, and duplicative permit when cities and municipalities use pesticides already approved and regulated by the EPA for mosquito abatement,” Gibbs said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s just another layer of red tape that diverts resources from their mission of protecting the public from insect-borne diseases.”

“Despite proponents’ attempts to mislead the public, they are simply trying to take away our right to know when pesticides are sprayed into our waterways,” LCV legislative representative Madeleine Foote said in a statement.

According to Foote, over the five years the EPA’s general permit program has been in place, there have been no complaints to the EPA about harm to farmers or about being unable to address health threats like the Zika virus. “House Republican leadership should stop trying to solve problems that don’t exist and instead focus on better protecting our health and safety,” she said.

While more than two dozen Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for the bill, several Democrats spoke out strongly against the legislation. “The Republicans are again bending over backward to help corporations and the wealthiest among us, while ignoring science and leaving hard-working families to suffer the consequences,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee, said on the House floor prior to the vote.