by Christopher Dunagan
Three commonly used insecticides pose a serious risk of extinction for Northwest salmon and steelhead, according to a draft "biological opinion" by federal experts.
The insecticides - diazinon, chlorpyrifos and malathion - have been detected in many of Puget Sound's urban streams, according to the 377-page report by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Public release of the draft report was part of a court settlement between the fisheries service and a coalition of fishing and environmental groups. The court had ruled earlier that the Environmental Protection Agency must assess the effects of dozens of pesticides on 28 salmon species listed as threatened or endangered.
Diazinon was "frequently detected in urban streams at concentrations that exceeded EPA guidelines for protecting aquatic life," the biological opinion says.
Malathion is licensed for home use and can be purchased at many home and garden stores.
Jim Lecky, an author of the report, said agency biologists studied the EPA's analysis and looked to other studies in some cases. Lecky is the director of the Office of Protected Resources in Silver Spring, Md., an office within the National Marine Fisheries Service.
What biologists found was that the pesticides can harm salmon, even when they are used as approved by the EPA, he said. Consequently, changes are required to protect these listed fish.
The chemicals could be taken off the market, restricted according to who can purchase them, restricted in their use, or managed through other measures, Lecky said. The draft biological opinion makes no mention of possible mitigation measures, he noted, but a recommendation will be issued when the final report comes out in October.
One of the most serious concerns, Lecky said, is that the three pesticides can affect the sense of smell for these fish that depend on their sensitive noses to find their way back to their home waters. The first three pesticides to come under a biological opinion are all neurotoxins, affecting the central nervous system. All three can kill fish at high concentrations.
Obtaining this scientific report about the effect of pesticides on salmon - the first of at least nine similar biological opinions - is a tremendous success, said Aimee Code of Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, one of the groups bringing the legal action.
"These scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service were very thorough with their research, which suggests they will be responsible with their recommendations," Code said. "They did an amazing job looking at a broad range of problems."
Environmental groups have been trying to get to this point for more than a decade, she said. First, the courts had to order the EPA to conduct assessments on chemical products, which had been placed on the market without a complete understanding of their biological effects, she said.
Next, the groups went to court to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete the biological opinions. The legal settlement includes deadlines for a compete review of 37 pesticides, listed in nine groups.
The first biological opinion resulted in a finding that use of the pesticides "is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of these endangered or threatened species." This finding of "jeopardy" is a legal determination that forces the agencies to change federal policies.
Code said she would like to see the pesticides discontinued, but she understands that farmers and homeowners need help in finding alternatives for insect controls.
"People have become dependent on these products, which cause harm in common practice," she said, adding that the risks go beyond salmon to farm workers, children and practically everyone.
Joshua Osborne-Klein, the Earthjustice attorney who handled the case, said he will continue to observe the process to make sure all the reviews get done.
The court had issued interim measures requiring pesticide users to apply the chemical a certain distance from streams, he noted, and that could be what the agencies propose as a permanent solution.
Besides Code's and Osborne-Klein's groups, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations remains involved in the case.
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