Judge Favors Pesticide-free Zones
by Hal Bernton
A federal lawsuit to protect threatened salmon and steelhead from pesticides is likely to result in hundreds of miles of no-spray buffers along streams and waterways that stretch from Washington to Southern California.
The new restrictions are expected to hit hardest the vegetable and fruit farmers who grow high-value, chemical-intensive crops, according to documents submitted for a federal-court hearing yesterday in Seattle.
U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour plans to have the new protections in place in time for next spring's farming season. His order is expected to push back pesticide use along hundreds of miles of waterways that harbor salmon and steelhead runs protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Salmon streams with healthy runs would not gain the protection.
The restrictions have jolted regional farm groups and national pesticide-industry groups that have intervened in the case. But just how far the rollback will go — and what chemicals it will cover — has yet to be determined.
At the end of yesterday's hearing, Coughenour directed the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental groups and industry representatives to try to negotiate the terms of an order that he expects to issue following the end of this year's fall crop season.
These will be high-stakes negotiations.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study submitted to the court stated that the measure could trigger crop losses in Washington and Oregon of more than $100 million annually if a 20-yard buffer — the minimum sought by environmentalists for many pesticides — were put into effect for 54 pesticides.
Federal agricultural officials admitted that these losses represented a worst-case scenario, with farmers opting to tear out fruit trees in the no-spray zones and unable to gain any compensation payments from the federal government. Roughly 85 percent of the projected losses would be in Washington, primarily in vegetable and fruit farm areas east of the Cascades.
Coughenour, in an earlier ruling, found that the EPA had failed to comply with Endangered Species Act requirements to assess the risks that as many as 54 pesticides pose to salmon. And he embraced no-spray buffers of up to 100 yards for aerial spraying and 20 yards for ground spraying as a good starting point for developing the new restrictions.
The ruling was a big win for the Washington Toxics Coalition, which joined with an Oregon-based environmental group and two fisheries groups to file the lawsuit in 2001.
They cited National Marine Fisheries Services studies and other reports that showed subtle — but damaging — effects that some pesticides can have on salmon even at levels as low as parts per billion.
"This is huge," said Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiffs. "Under the normal way of doing business, nothing happens until the evidence is so strong that it knocks you over."
Allen James, president of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a national association representing the pesticides industry, said any new buffers should be determined by the EPA — not the courts. "We do not have to choose between helping farmers and helping salmon," James said. "We can do both."
Farm representatives said yesterday that it was unfair that they should be hit with such restrictions, especially at a time when many salmon runs are on the rebound.
It's unclear how long the new buffers will be in place. But the EPA process of reviewing the pesticides — and determining salmon risks — could take years.
And Coughenour yesterday acknowledged the complexities — and potentially far reach — of the order. At the end of the hearing, he said that the order should be limited to "what is really absolutely necessary."
Coughenour also appears to be turning away from a request by environmental groups that would have forbidden homeowners in Seattle and other urban areas from buying or spreading eight widely used chemicals. Instead, their use would have been restricted to licensed pesticide applicators.
But Coughenour said he was "very reluctant to do something as drastic as that."
Instead, he appeared to favor signs or pamphlets alerting consumers that some salmon runs are protected under the Endangered Species Act and that some chemicals could harm the fish.
List of 54 Pesticides under review.
Research Suggests Pesticides Disrupt How Salmon Smell
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