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EPA Ordered to Protect Salmon from Pesticides

by Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press
Seattle Times - July 4, 2002

GRANTS PASS, Ore. A federal judge yesterday ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin protecting threatened and endangered salmon from 55 pesticides applied to everything from farm fields to suburban lawns.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle found that the EPA has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency in charge of salmon recovery, despite EPA's own findings that pesticides harm salmon.

The failure to follow the Endangered Species Act goes back to the 1989 endangered-species listing of winter chinook in the Sacramento River in California and continued through the listings of 25 more salmon and steelhead runs, the judge said.

"Such consultation is mandatory and not subject to unbridled agency discretion," the judge wrote.

An EPA spokesman said the agency had not reviewed the ruling and could not comment on it.

EPA generally tests the toxicity of pesticides on fish by gradually increasing the concentration in water until a fish dies, then imposing a margin of safety.

"There are very few restrictions on using pesticides near water," said Erika Schreder of the Washington Toxics Coalition, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"With so few restrictions currently in place it is no surprise we see pesticides in our water practically whenever we look for them."

NMFS scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle have found that levels of pesticide between 1 part per billion and 1 part per 10 billion, commonly found in salmon streams around the West, can harm the nervous systems of salmon particularly their sense of smell. Small amounts of pesticides can also affect reproduction success.

In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, they found that juvenile chinook salmon exposed to the pesticide diazinon, commonly used on lawns and farms to kill insects, lost their ability to smell a chemical given off when a predator breaks the skin of another salmon. The pheromone alerts other fish to hide.

The makers of diazinon agreed in 2000 to phase out the pesticide by 2004.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of the plaintiffs, said the ruling would ultimately help restore wild salmon that, before starting a precipitous decline in the 1980s, supported a $1.25 billion fishing economy and 60,000 jobs.

Heather Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which intervened in the lawsuit on the side of EPA, said the ruling could be very significant, because it affects pesticides commonly used by homeowners as well as farmers. However, it is too early to tell what it will mean for pesticide users.

"The whole point of doing consultation is to look at all the data you have, figure out if there is a problem, what the problem is, and what to do about it," she said. "We don't know yet how any of those steps in the consultation process for each product will come out."

Hansen said farmers are generally careful about using the minimum amount of pesticides to protect their crops, because pesticides are expensive and agricultural profit margins are very thin.

Aimee Code of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, another plaintiff, said it is unclear what steps EPA might ultimately have to take, but they could include withdrawing some pesticides from approval and requiring stricter restrictions on application near water.

The judge ordered the EPA to begin consulting with the NMFS by July 15 and cover all 55 pesticides by Dec. 1, 2004

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Oh, by the way, EPA, by Seattle Times Editors

by Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press
EPA Ordered to Protect Salmon from Pesticides
Seattle Times, July 4, 2002

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