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By James V. Aidala, Lisa R. Burchi, and Barbara A. Christianson

On January 11, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it is implementing a new policy regarding the evaluation and registration of new conventional pesticide active ingredients (AI) to comply further with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (ESA Policy). EPA also issued a Question and Answer document regarding its ESA Policy. Effective immediately, EPA will evaluate the potential effects of new conventional AIs on federally threatened or listed endangered species (Listed Species) and their designated critical habitats, and initiate ESA consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (the Services) if necessary before EPA registers any new conventional AIs. The new ESA Policy will apply to all new conventional AI applications, including applications already submitted to EPA but not yet completed.

Under the ESA, EPA must ensure that its actions are not likely to result in jeopardy or adverse modification of designated critical habitat or Listed Species. To determine whether the action may affect Listed Species and their designated critical habitats, EPA makes one of three types of species-specific effects determinations: No Effect (NE), Not Likely to Adversely Affect (NLAA), or Likely to Adversely Affect (LAA). EPA states that historically it did not “consistently assess the potential effects of conventional pesticides on listed species when registering new AIs.” This, EPA states, “resulted in insufficient protections from new AIs for listed species, as well as resource-intensive litigation against EPA for registering new AIs prior to assessing potential effects on listed species.” EPA believes its new ESA Policy should assist in reducing these types of cases against EPA and improve the legal defensibility of new AIs.

EPA states that under the new ESA Policy, if EPA makes an LAA determination through its analyses of a new conventional pesticide AI, EPA will initiate formal consultation with the Services before granting a new AI registration. As part of its analysis and under its existing authorities, EPA will consider the likelihood that the registration action may jeopardize the continued existence of Listed Species or adversely modify their designated critical habitat and provide its findings to the Services. To determine or predict the potential effects of a pesticide on these species and habitats, EPA will use appropriate ecological assessment principles and apply what it has learned from past effects determinations and the Services’ biological opinions. EPA states it is determining whether any new information would be useful for assessing the potential impacts on Listed Species from a new AI, and it will specifically contact registrants that have a new Al application currently under consideration to discuss whether additional information is necessary for EPA’s ESA assessment for the new conventional AI.

If EPA determines that jeopardy or adverse modification is likely for a designated critical habitat or Listed Species, it will only make a registration decision on the new conventional AI after requiring registrants to implement mitigation measures that EPA determines would likely prevent such jeopardy or adverse modification. If EPA finds that a new AI is likely to affect adversely a Listed Species or its critical habitat, but that a jeopardy or adverse modification is not likely, it may nonetheless require registrants to include mitigation measures as part of their registration and product labeling to minimize the potential effects of incidental take to Listed Species that could result from use of a pesticide. In both situations, formal consultation with the Services would still be necessary, as EPA states final jeopardy or adverse modification determinations must be made by the Services. Regarding timeframes, EPA states in the Q&A that it “strives to complete new AI applications within PRIA timelines,” but will work with affected registrations to “renegotiate” PRIA deadlines if EPA believes additional time will be needed under the ESA Policy.

EPA states that it has prioritized conventional pesticide AIs but that it is continuing to explore applying these new ESA approaches to new biopesticide AIs and new antimicrobial AIs. EPA also is developing a comprehensive strategy to address ESA for pesticides at all stages of the registration process. EPA is currently developing a detailed work plan to outline additional improvements to further its compliance with the ESA, including steps to implement protections for high-risk species more efficiently, provide growers with more flexible mitigation measures, and increase stakeholder engagement.

Commentary

This announcement represents the next attempt by the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) to comply with ESA requirements in a way that, as the ESA Policy points out, will be more legally defensible while continuing its work to review and approve new pesticide AIs. In recent years, EPA has tried various arguments, mostly futile, to convince courts that past attempts to comply with ESA were sufficient.

This ESA Policy hints at important changes both in EPA’s past rhetoric regarding compliance and possible changes to the ways ESA assessments have been conducted in the past. On the record, EPA has maintained it complied with ESA when registering a new product. The courts have found this claim unsupported and almost always agreed with groups that challenged that claim. There have been a few exceptions where EPA, while not entirely resolving ESA concerns, had more “up front” consideration of ESA issues. Such earlier attention to resolving any ESA concerns, however, can add significantly to the time spent and data requirements to evaluate and address ESA issues.

Any relatively successful cases over past years complement the renewed and explicit commitment by the Biden Administration with the ESA Policy to attempt to resolve the long-standing problem of establishing a registration process that better addresses ESA issues with, among other things, improved coordination between EPA procedures and the review process (and conclusions) of the Services. Past Administrations have expressed similar rhetoric, but so far, many have tried, and all have failed.

In various forums, EPA has dryly described the efforts generally as -- “EPA is currently developing a detailed work plan to outline additional improvements to further the Agency’s compliance with the ESA.” More importantly, perhaps, and new to the mix is that EPA now has a senior political appointee (Jake Li as Deputy Assistant Administrator of OCSPP) especially tasked to lead efforts regarding the ESA-FIFRA integration process.

For applicants and registrants of new conventional AIs, these revised efforts may lead to some delays in the current expected timeframes to “work out” ESA concerns earlier in the process. And importantly, EPA’s ESA Policy describes how new approvals will include more “up front” mitigation measures designed to protect threatened and endangered species to a sufficient, or at least better, degree -- which appears to be a key change designed to reduce the litigation risks that have dogged new registration decisions in recent years.


 

By Carla N. Hutton

On November 3, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of the Interior “reaffirm[ed] their commitment to working together and with stakeholders to protect endangered species, provide effective pest control tools, and regulate pesticide use in a fair, transparent, and predictable manner.” According to EPA’s November 3, 2021, press release, on October 15, 2021, all five agencies met as part of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) created under the 2018 Farm Bill to discuss improvements to the consultation process for pesticide registration and registration review under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). EPA states that the group’s first meeting resulted in specific commitments to improve the pesticide consultation process for endangered species and engaging stakeholders, including by capitalizing on the strong interest among stakeholders for a workable process.

According to the press release, the IWG is optimistic about its ability to collaborate on improvements that the Biden Administration can implement. The IWG’s actions focused on improving processes that will contribute to tangible benefits for species conservation and for stakeholders. EPA states that the IWG “is intent to adopt improvements expeditiously and that endure across administrations.” To guide its future work, the IWG has identified the following initial priorities and approaches:

  • Focus on improvements that deliver real world benefits for species conservation, public health, and food production. Examples include:
    • Use pilot projects to begin implementing mitigation measures as part of upcoming pesticide consultations and to demonstrate process improvements;
    • Adopt measures early in the pesticide consultation process to avoid, minimize, and offset the effects of pesticide use on ESA-listed species; and
    • Ensure that mitigation measures are effective and practical to implement;
  • Consider opportunities to engage with stakeholders as an interagency body to complement the stakeholder activities of each agency; and
  • Communicate the IWG’s work to stakeholders in a transparent manner.

EPA states that “[e]ffective endangered species protection cannot be accomplished solely by federal agencies,” but also requires “open and continuous engagement with stakeholders on practical solutions to harmonizing species conservation with pesticide use.” To that end, the IWG plans to hold its first stakeholder listening session in early 2022 and will provide details on the proposed session before the end of 2021.


 

By Lisa M. Campbell, James V. Aidala, and Susan Hunter Youngren, Ph.D.


On April 15, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a one-day workshop regarding assessing risks to endangered and threatened species from pesticides. This workshop was intended to provide a forum for stakeholders to offer scientific and technical feedback on the ongoing agency efforts to develop draft Biological Evaluations (BE) for three pilot chemicals (chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion) in response to the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) report “Assessing Risks to Endangered and Threatened Species from Pesticides.” The workshop was the fourth interagency workshop on this issue, and follows previously-held public meetings in November and December 2013, April 2014, and October 2014, and was held as part of the enhancement of the stakeholder engagement process finalized in March 2013. A copy of the Fourth ESA Stakeholder Workshop agenda is available online. The Interagency presentations are also available online.

This workshop presentations and discussion appeared to demonstrate progress among the agencies in coordinating their work to address the issues that have been the subject of this and prior workshops. The presentation content exhibited a better understanding of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) evaluation process by the Services, and the presentations themselves allowed for more interaction between the presenters and participants; some of the question and answer sessions (conducted after each segment) included detailed exchanges of information among the participants.

To the dismay of some registrants and observers, however, as the various evaluation models were described, and an avian case study presented, the direction of the joint analyses seemed to be moving towards the marriage of very conservative EPA assessment models and assumptions with the Services’ desire to avoid any potential impacts on individual members of a protected species and any habitat. Should this direction not change, the Endangered Species Act pilot assessments could be very conservative and indicate what many may believe is an unwarranted need for significant changes in some current pesticide labels. Simply put, from a registrant perspective, the good news is that the agencies are cooperating and working better together; the bad news is that both EPA and the Services appear to be planning to use very conservative models and assumptions, which could result in proposals for severe restrictions on some current use patterns.

 


 

By Timothy D. Backstrom

On January 20, 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued its latest Biological Opinion (BiOp) in a series of BiOps evaluating potential effects of pesticide use on salmon in the Pacific Northwest. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides to permit continued registration of a pesticide (during reregistration or registration review), Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7(a)(2) requires EPA to determine, in consultation with the NMFS and/or the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), that continued registration is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species. Under current procedures, EPA scientists make an initial threshold determination whether or not continued registration “might” have such an effect, followed by referral to the FWS or the NMFS for formal consultation in those instances where that threshold is met.

The January 20, 2015, NMFS BiOp concerns the pesticides diflubenzuron, fenbutatin oxide, and propargite, and is one in a series of NMFS BiOps for Pacific salmon. As part of litigation that began in 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered EPA to determine whether it should have consulted with NMFS concerning reregistration of 55 specific pesticides. EPA subsequently initiated a formal consultation with NMFS for 37 of these 55 pesticides.

Like most of the prior BiOps, the latest NMFS BiOp recommends that EPA require the affected pesticide registrants to adopt buffer zones and other mitigation measures. The scientific methodology underlying the NMFS BiOps has been sharply criticized by industry and questioned by EPA. EPA has not yet adopted the measures recommended by NMFS in any of the previous BiOps. The BiOp for the pesticides chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion was vacated and remanded to NMFS by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on February 21, 2013. That decision was based in part on use of implausible assumptions in the NMFS model and on the decision of NMFS to recommend uniform buffer zones without regard to site-specific factors. Industry has criticized the latest BiOp on similar grounds. Some may also ask why NMFS did not utilize methodology like that recommended in 2013 by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, but NMFS states that consultations with other agencies concerning a process to implement the NAS recommendations are still pending.