EPA can skip consulting other agencies in OK-ing pesticides

Environmentalists say new rules sap protection for endangered species

July 30, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration made it easier yesterday for the government to approve pesticides used by farmers and homeowners, saying it no longer would require the Environmental Protection Agency to first consult with other federal agencies to determine whether a product could harm endangered species.

The change, supported by growers and pesticide manufacturers, affects federal regulations for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, a law that protects about 1,200 threatened animals and plants.

Environmentalists said the streamlined process would strip away protections for those species.

The law has been successfully used by environmental groups in a recent lawsuit seeking to mitigate the effects of pesticides on salmon in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge found that the EPA had failed to abide by a requirement that it consult with federal wildlife agencies over the potential harm from pesticides.

Less consultation

Under the new process, expected to take effect in a few months, the EPA will conduct its own scientific evaluation. The agency will be required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies only if its internal evaluation deems that a pesticide is likely to have an adverse effect on endangered species.

"The new rule benefits the pesticide industry at the expense of endangered species," said Aaron Colangelo, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. "By cutting the government's wildlife experts out of the loop, the rule removes an important safety net to protect endangered species."

Colangelo previously sued the EPA for allowing the pesticide atrazine to affect sea turtles in the Chesapeake Bay.

But government officials said that because the consultation process had gotten so complex, it was routinely ignored by the agencies. They said it had become a bureaucratic maze that helped no one.

"With 1,200 endangered species and hundreds of chemicals, it becomes a logistical nightmare," said Hugh Vickery, an Interior Department spokesman. "The thinking was that we had to find a more efficient way."

Looking and leaping

Vickery said the litigation on the West Coast spurred the government to act. "This got the fire going on trying to solve the problem," he said.

Environmentalists said the changes would weaken the law. "The law was designed to say `Look before you leap,'" said John Kostyack, senior counsel with the National Wildlife Federation. "This is leaping before you look."

But officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency would continue to monitor the EPA's work under the new rules.

"We are not out of the picture," said Clint Riley, special assistant to the wildlife service's director. "We would be in more of an oversight role. As soon as it looks like there would be any adverse effect, we would still be in the picture."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this article. The Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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