Three environmental groups asked a federal appeals court on Wednesday to order the EPA to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. EarthJustice, which is representing the Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, was responding to the EPA’s recent announcement that it would not be following through on its own decision to ban the pesticide, which has been repeatedly found to damage children’s developing brains.
Scientists have spent years documenting that exposure to chlorpyrifos increases children’s chances of having long-term, developmental problems, including attention, memory and intelligence deficits, tremors, and autism. After carefully weighing that evidence — as well as critiques of it from Dow Chemical, which patented and still sells most of the pesticide — the EPA decided to move ahead with a ban on chlorpyrifos in 2015.
On November 10, the agency took what was supposed to be a final step in banning the pesticide: issuing a revised assessment of the chemical’s effects on human health, which set a new exposure limit for the pesticide. According to the report, many children are already being exposed to high levels of chlorpyrifos and some children between ages one and two are exposed to levels that are more than 14,000 percent above that limit. Only a 60-day public comment period was necessary before the pesticide would be removed from use.
But the deadline the federal court gave EPA to finalize its decision — March 31 — pushed the finalization of the decision into Trump’s presidency. Many have since been watching chlorpyrifos as a test for whether the new administration would tackle even the clearest, most studied health threats. The pesticide presented a case in which scientific questions have already been asked and answered and in which children are being directly harmed. Safe drinking water is at stake, and that’s something both Trump and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt have insisted they care about and want to protect. And because the president seems to be particularly concerned about autism, some had hoped he would not stand in the way of a move that would likely have reduced the incidence of autism cases.
Dow was clearly opposed to the ban — and had hired a lobbyist to try to avert it and a science-for-hire company to criticize the science on which it was based. In his few months in office, Trump has not just proven to be not just opposed to government regulation, but also very close to Dow Chemical, which contributed $1 million to his inaugural committee. Trump named Dow CEO Andrew Liveris to head his manufacturing council and the president’s team sends the businessman emails “if not every day, then every other day,” as Liveris told the Washington Post.
When Scott Pruitt announced his decision to reverse the agency’s decision to ban chlorpyrifos on March 29, he talked about businesses rather than children. “We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos,” Pruitt said, according to an EPA press release. The release also included a statement from Sheryl Kunickis, director of the Office of Pest Management Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who said the decision “frees American farmers from significant trade disruptions that could have been caused by an unnecessary, unilateral revocation of chlorpyrifos tolerances in the United States.” Though the agency has already extensively reviewed the science of chlorpyrifos over the past decade, the EPA’s decision called for further study.
To Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the failure to ban chlorpyrifos is only the most egregious instance in an emerging pattern of failing to take action on other dangerous pesticides, including the weed killer, glyphosate. Four members wrote to the committee’s chair, Rep. Greg Walden, asking him to investigate Pruitt’s reversal on chlorpyrifos, which they said “increases our concern that the Trump Administration is failing to properly implement the Food Quality Protection Act.” Noting that the industry group CropLife America intervened in the EPA process to defend glyphosate, the Democratic members asked for a hearing that would ask if Dow raised “similar concerns or request changes to the Science Advisory Panel for chlorpyrifos?”
The lawyers who petitioned the court for action today have already seen industry pressure on chlorpyrifos slow efforts to regulate it. The environmental groups have been asking EPA to ban the pesticide since at least 2000, and first sued the agency over chlorpyrifos back in 2007. Since then, the Dow presence at EPA has increased, according to Patti Goldman, an EarthJustice attorney who has been working to protect the public from the risks of chlorpyrifos for more than 20 years.
Yet the environmental groups think they may still be able to get chlorpyrifos banned – in part because Pruitt’s decision was so clearly at odds with years of research that shows the dangers of chlorpyrifos. “It’s outrageous that the new EPA administrator would reject the scientific findings of its own agency and defy the law and court orders to keep this nasty pesticide on the market,” says Goldman, who notes that the EPA is required to make sure pesticides meet safety standards.
Though the appeals court had ordered the EPA to finalize its decision back in 2015, “EPA’s response to the petition is no response at all and certainly not what this Court ordered EPA to do,” according to Wednesday’s filing. And that, according to Goldman, won’t sit well with the judges. “This is defying the court and they don’t like that.”