WASHINGTON — Environmental groups went to court Thursday against Bush administration rules that allow the use of new pesticides with fewer checks on how they affect endangered species.
The eight groups filed suit in federal district court in Seattle claiming the rule changes in July violated several environmental laws. The changes let the Environmental Protection Agency review some pesticides without consulting Interior and Commerce department experts.
Ironically, the changes were partly intended to reduce the government’s vulnerability to lawsuits, since it has routinely been ignoring an Endangered Species Act requirement. That law says the EPA must consult with Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service each time it licenses a new pesticide.
“The Endangered Species Act sets up checks and balances, and the key check is the Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries scientists,” said Patti Goldman, a Seattle attorney with the law firm Earthjustice, representing the groups. “What the regulations do is abolish that process for most pesticides uses.”
The EPA has been consulting the two wildlife services when it finds a pesticide could harm a species. But it has been ignoring the requirement for consultations when it decides there would probably be no harm.
“Because of the complexity ... there have been almost no consultations completed in the past decade,” Hugh Vickery, an Interior Department spokesman, acknowledged Thursday.
The rule changes allow the EPA to overlook the requirement it is already ignoring.
“With 1,200 endangered species and how many hundreds of chemicals, you can see the logistical nightmare,” Vickery said. “This is a more efficient approach that will let them get to the ones that really need to be done.”
Vickery said the agency could not remark directly on the lawsuit. Cynthia Bergman, an EPA spokeswoman, said the new rules will speed decision-making and make better use of agency scientists. “We need to fix this process,” she said, and the wildlife services have agreed the “EPA is fully capable and has extensive expertise” figuring potential impacts on species.
The EPA was successfully sued in Seattle by Washington Toxics Coalition, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and other groups, who argued the EPA hadn’t consulted experts on the risks several pesticides posed to salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
The EPA has also been sued in federal court in Baltimore by the Natural Resources Defense Council on similar grounds. The still-pending case involves atrazine, a popular weed killer.
Those groups, along with Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Institute for Fisheries Resources and Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment, filed the suit Thursday.
Goldman said now that the EPA is being forced to comply with the law, it is trying to change the rules, which were written with strong support by the pesticide industry.
“It’s EPA’s violation of the law that has created the backlog, and instead of complying with the law to deal with that backlog, they’re trying to give themselves a get-out-of-jail card,” she said. “They’re changing the rules to try to eliminate the requirements.”
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