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Feb. 8 — Disagreements between the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are prompting legislators and industry leaders to question EPA pesticide use decisions as the two agencies clash publicly over the risks and benefits of agricultural chemicals.
At least five times within the past 12 months, senior USDA officials have sent letters to the EPA containing sharp, detailed criticism of EPA pesticide decisions. By law, the EPA has been required to post these letters to publicly available dockets.
In some of these letters, USDA officials write to simply get their objections to an EPA pesticide decision on the record. But in others, the officials rebuke the EPA for taking actions they specifically requested the agency not take.
Disagreements between federal agencies are not unusual, but the intensity and public nature of these ongoing disputes has caught the attention of the agriculture industry and some lawmakers.
The working relationship between the two agencies was among the topics discussed in a May 2015 hearing before a House Agriculture subcommittee. At that time, legislators worried that conflicts over pesticides were preventing the USDA and the EPA from effectively carrying out their regulatory duties .
Since that hearing, the USDA has sent several more letters to the EPA expressing strong, detailed concerns over at least four additional EPA pesticide decisions.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the Agriculture subcommittee's chairman, told Bloomberg BNA that he plans to bring up the issue at a Feb. 11 full committee hearing with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
“We continue to see this pattern where the EPA is unwilling to work with the USDA on pesticide approval and other issues,” Davis told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail.
In a Feb. 9 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA, EPA spokesman Nick Conger said: “We value our relationship with USDA as well as all our federal partners and work closely with them on many issues of mutual concern.”
Though the department's specific objections varied, a common theme across the USDA's letters is a concern that the EPA will restrict farmers' access to pesticides based on flawed or incomplete science.
In a Dec. 16, 2015, letter to the EPA, Sheryl Kunickis, director of the USDA's Office of Pest Management Policy, said the EPA's risk estimates for a class of weed killing chemicals were too conservative and that it needs to “carefully consider the benefits of these herbicides to U.S. agriculture.”
Kunickis reiterated this point about the benefits of pesticides in a Jan. 5 letter criticizing an EPA proposal—which was issued in response to a court order—to enact a near-total ban on the widely used insecticide chlorpyrifos.
Robert Johansson, the USDA's chief economist, had even harsher words for the EPA in his April 6, 2015, letter to the EPA. He wrote to object to the findings of an EPA study that found applying controversial insecticides known as neonicotinoids to soybean seeds before planting results in no significant economic benefit to farmers .
The study was meant to be the first in a series looking at the economic benefits of neonicotinoids, which have been linked to alarming declines in pollinator populations, though so far it is the only one in this series that the EPA has issued.
“EPA added an additional and unnecessary burden [to farmers] by publishing a portion of an incomplete risk assessment,” Johansson wrote. “USDA staff had specifically requested EPA to complete the full risk assessment.”
Conflicts between USDA and EPA over pesticides are far from unprecedented, according to James Aidala, the EPA's top chemical regulator during the Clinton administration. He said the relationship between the two agencies typically waxes and wanes over the years as the agencies' priorities align or diverge.
This latest spat, however, “belies a little more intensity than in some past phases,” Aidala, now a senior government affairs consultant with the firm Bergeson & Campbell, told Bloomberg BNA.
The letters from USDA officials not only touch on economic issues—typically the USDA's specialty area—but also contain detailed critiques of scientific methodology, generally thought to be EPA's area of expertise, Aidala said.
“The level of intensity is surprising,” he said. “It's more than just, ‘Hey, we have a problem with you.' ”
The USDA did not make Kunickis available for an interview.
The agriculture industry also expressed concern about the USDA's voice in the pesticide regulation process.
“We hear that USDA is routinely ignored,” Beau Greenwood, executive vice president of government relations at the pesticide industry group CropLife America, said at a Feb. 1 conference in Washington.
The EPA's soybean seed study was one of several points of contention raised in a Jan. 22 letter from more than three dozen agriculture groups to the House Agriculture Committee in advance of its upcoming hearing with McCarthy. According to the letter, EPA made its soybean decision and, “USDA was not consulted and issued a strong response that contradicted EPA's conclusions.”
Dudley Hoskins, public policy counsel with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said he thinks recent judicial actions against the EPA may be what is spurring the conflicts.
Over the past year, federal courts have rebuked the EPA in a handful of pesticide lawsuits filed against the agency by environmental activist groups .
Hoskins said some of the actions taken by the EPA that raised the most objections from the agriculture industry were instances in which the EPA's hand was forced by a court order.
“That's definitely a concerning point,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “Nothing against the judicial branch, but individuals who serve as judges across federal circuits, they don't have the same skill set or expertise that [EPA] has.”
Hoskins added, “Courts are just not the right vehicle to develop and implement policy that is very refined and technical.”
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A copy of the Jan. 22 letter from agriculture industry groups to the House Agriculture Committee is available at http://src.bna.com/cvk.
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