Three states that ask the EPA every year for permission to use a pesticide proven to harm bees are using emergency exemptions as a backdoor way to evade pesticide rules, an environmental group argues.
Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia recently petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency for an emergency exemption to use dinotefuran, a neonicotinoid-based insecticide, on peaches, apples, and nectarines. The chemical helps control the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive plant-eating pest that can ravage fruit, vegetable, and ornamental crops.
Generally, pesticide products can only be used as labeled. When an agricultural emergency arises, such as an invasive pest that threatens to destroy crops, states can request an emergency exemption under Section 18 of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.
If approved, 2020 would be the 10th consecutive year these states have received emergency exemptions to use dinotefuran. Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, and West Virginia have been granted similar approvals for each of the previous nine years.
“After a decade, it’s safe to say the same pests on the same trees are no longer an emergency,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, a watchdog group that uses the legal system to push for environmental protections.
Donley said that section 18 was never intended to substitute for a pesticide going through a full registration review. This is of particular concern, he said, for neonicotinoid-based insecticides, like dinotefuran, which have been linked to drastic declines in populations of bees and pollinators.
The Center for Biological Diversity earlier this year filed a legal petition calling for EPA to limit emergency exemptions to two years as a way to prohibit some abuses of this process.
No Other Options
Marmorated stink bugs arrived in the U.S. more than 20 years ago from Asia, and have since spread to every state except Hawaii. They have been of particular concern for mid-Atlantic states where they have been know to attack tree fruit crops.
“Pennsylvania fruit growers have provided data to demonstrate that this product is effective in preventing crop loss, used in this limited way, under these limited circumstances,” said Shannon Powers, a press secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
An official at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agreed that Section 18 exemptions were originally intended for a limited time to address emergency conditions. But she blamed EPA for the ongoing use of emergency exemptions of dinotefuran.
“In this case, the delay has been with the EPA registration review process,” said Liza Fleeson Trossbach, a program manager in the state agriculture department’s Office of Pesticide Services.
Registering a pesticide is a scientific, legal, and administrative procedure that occurs every 15 years, where EPA examines potential environmental or health risks tied to the pesticide, and which crops are approved for use on the label. So far, peaches, nectarines, and apples haven’t been approved for regular usage of dinotefuran, which farmers claims is their best tool to fight stink bugs.
Fleeson Trossbach said this ongoing registration review for neonicotinoids, including dinotefuran, has prevented the EPA from considering new uses.
“Given the ongoing pest pressures, and in the absence of other options, an emergency exemption remains the only option currently available for the use of this product,” she said.
The EPA’s proposed interim registration decisions for five neonicotinoids, including dinotefuran, were originally published in February, with a 60-day public comment period. The agency has twice extended the comment period, which will conclude on June 18.
“EPA will not authorize new uses for any of the neonicotinoids that could potentially affect pollinators until the Agency can determine a safety finding,” an agency spokesperson said. “For these reasons, the Agency is awaiting publication of the neonicotinoid interim decisions prior to considering new uses.”
The neonicotinoid interim decisions are scheduled to publish in 2021.
Dinotefuran isn’t the only pesticide that the EPA has authorized on an emergency basis for multiple years, the Center for Biological Diversity said in its petition.
From 2010 to mid-2019, every one of the 170 emergency exemption requests for bifenthrin was for an issue that lasted at least three years, and all but seven were for an issue that lasted at least six years, according to the petition.
The state of Washington received a recurring exemption for at least nine years for emergency uses of the pesticide lambda-cyhalothrin, the center said. Florida got six years of exemptions for clothianidin, which is also a neonicotinioid, the center noted.
This practice of routinely granting emergency approvals, year after year, was also flagged by the EPA’s own internal watchdog. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General in a report in 2018 found that the practice didn’t effectively measure risks to human health or the environment.
The Inspector General recommended that the agency “develop and implement applicable outcome-based performance measures to demonstrate the human health and environmental effects of the EPA’s emergency exemption decisions.”
At the time, EPA officials disagreed with the recommendation, saying that development of an outcome-based performance measure for the Section 18 emergency exemption process was neither “appropriate nor feasible.”
Some agriculture experts also say that the actual on-the-ground threat posed by dinotefuran is not that great.
“We’re not talking about widespread use; this is case-by-case situation,” said Greg Krawczyk, a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Fruit Research and Extension Center.
Krawczyk said most of the dinotefuran used on pome and stone fruit comes late in the season, and only in small amounts when farmers find stink bugs in bait traps.
“It’s also well after the bloom time, when bees aren’t actively foraging in orchards,” he said. “So the impact on bees is not as high with this particular case.”
In addition to being sold as a household insecticide, dinotefuran is sold for agricultural use under the brand names Venom, made by Valent USA, and Scorpion, made by the Gowan Company.
Krawczyk said dinotefuran remains the most effective tool against stink bugs, with the only other option being pyrethroid-based insecticides “that are not very selective products and basically kill everything,” he said.
“Even if you’re only using it [dinotefuran] late in the season, or just on specific crops, these neonics are still systemic chemicals that have been proven to persist in soil, water, and plant material,” said Jay Feldman, Execuitve Director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
The original intent of the Section 18 rule was to give pesticide makers and farmers incentives to develop alternatives, Feldman said.
“But when you’re in your tenth year of approving an emergency, you disincentivize those alternatives,” he said, “Why try to develop something new when you can expect to have access to this same chemical year after year?”
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