Pesticide Spraying Bill Clears House, But Senate Passage Unclear

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By Tiffany Stecker

The House swiftly passed a bill designed to ease regulatory requirements for farmers and public health officials who spray pesticides over water bodies, putting it on track to reverse a 2009 court opinion that has angered the pest control community for years. But the bill’s Senate prospects remain uncertain.

H.R. 953, introduced by Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), passed 256-165 May 24. Twenty-five Democrats crossed party lines in favor of the bill, and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.

The bill would reinstate Clean Water Act exemptions that allow mosquito control districts and other users of pesticides to sidestep requirements to obtain water pollution permits when spraying near or over water.

The legislation would overturn a 2009 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to require the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, which are intended to control pollution in protected waterways, for pesticide applications near water.

Republicans and some farm-state Democrats say the requirement is redundant because applicators must already comply with the federal pesticides law—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act—to spray the chemicals. They have pushed for the legislation in every Congress since the Sixth Circuit decision. The bill has typically passed the House easily, but Democrats in the Senate have blocked the measure from moving forward.

Permit Costs in the Thousands: Backers

“Some of my colleagues across the aisle have called this Groundhog Day in the past,” Gibbs said on the House floor, a reference to the 1993 movie in which the protagonist relives the same day over and over again.

“I agree; time after time they have supported increasing the regulations just for regulations’ sake,” he said.

The cost associated with the Environmental Protection Agency’s permit scheme to small businesses and some local governments could be as high as $50,000 per permit annually, according to the House Agriculture Committee’s report on the bill. Fines can reach $37,500 per day.

The Zika virus outbreak has brought a sense of urgency to efforts to ease restrictions on mosquito control applicators, say backers of the legislation. Gibbs sought to attach the bill to a spending package to address Zika last year, but President Barack Obama threatened to veto the aid if it included the pesticide rider and the provision was not included in the final package.

Republicans expect President Donald Trump to sign the regulatory reform bill.

“He will sign a bill that injects common sense back into the process of killing mosquitoes,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on the floor.

Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate ( S. 340).

Bill ‘Fails the Smell Test’

With the exception of Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who serves as ranking member of the House Agriculture panel, Democrats criticized the bill as an attempt to weaken environmental protections. They said the regulatory burden to pesticide sprayers amounts to a few pages of paperwork, documents which can track pesticide misuse in the case of a fish kill or other incident.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) said the bill would strip protections from waterways that are already impaired by pesticide pollution.

“We cannot, we should not take away one of the only tools to monitor for adverse impacts of pesticides on our rivers, streams and reservoirs,” Napolitano told House lawmakers.

The bill passed easily in the House Agriculture Committee Feb. 16 but didn’t receive a markup in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over Clean Water Act matters.

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a longtime opponent of the legislation, decried Republicans’ "hooey” about the need to kill mosquitoes, saying that the EPA has not identified a single incident in which the Clean Water Act permits have caused problems.

“It still fails the smell test,” DeFazio said.

The House voted down two Democratic amendments to the bill. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) offered a measure to maintain clean water protections for certain toxic chemicals. It failed 191-229.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to maintain the Clean Water Act permit requirements for waters that are important to commercial and recreational fisheries. It failed 189-230.

‘Competing Priorities’ in the Senate

The bill’s Senate supporters will have to compete with a number of other priorities in the upper chamber, including the confirmation of about 500 Trump appointees and a House health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act.

“Sen. Crapo is optimistic the bill will be considered ... but there are competing priorities on the floor right now,” Crapo press secretary Robert Sumner told Bloomberg BNA in an email. “Passage in the House is a good first step, but we have not been given a specific timetable on its movement in the Senate.”

In 2011, former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) placed a hold on the legislation, killing it in the upper chamber. Last year, the bill was attached to sportsmen’s legislation that never made it past the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer, who retired from the Senate in January, served as the Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking member. Her replacement as the committee’s top Democrat is Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), who has sided with Republicans in the past in favor of overturning the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

Carper has not co-sponsored the Crapo-McCaskill companion bill in the Senate. He told Bloomberg BNA that he has supported past versions of the legislation at the urging of his state’s agriculture and environmental protection departments.

“They said it’s a case where we really do have duplication and it’s something that ought to be addressed the bill,” he said. He added he would run the current bill past those departments, along with the state Department of Natural Resources, before lending his support.

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington, D.C., at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

For More Information

H.R. 953 is at http://src.bna.com/pdj.

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