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Ninth Circuit Affirms EPA Order Denying Request for Uniform Buffer Zones to Mitigate Exposure of Children to Spray Drift
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By Lisa M. Campbell and Timothy D. Backstrom
 
On July 5, 2016, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a brief opinion denying a petition for review of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) order in which EPA declined to “immediately adopt interim prohibitions on the use of toxic drift-prone pesticides … near homes, schools, parks, and daycare centers or wherever children congregate.”  Petitioners Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), United Farm Workers, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PANNA, et al.) filed an administrative petition in 2009 asking EPA to conduct pesticide-specific drift assessments and to impose interim buffer zones to protect children from pesticide drift.
 
The Circuit Court agreed with EPA’s contention that the petitioners do not have jurisdiction to review the reregistration and tolerance determinations previously made by EPA pursuant to the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), because such challenges are now time barred.  EPA agreed with the petitioners that it should consider potential risks from spray drift as part of the registration review under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).  The petitioners argued that EPA had thereby acknowledged legal error when it previously reregistered food-use pesticides, but EPA has vigorously contested that premise.  In 2014, EPA issued a proposal describing the methodology for assessing risk from pesticide drift that EPA will use prospectively in making registration review decisions.
 
The petitioners requested that EPA adopt interim relief by imposing uniform buffer zones for all pesticides that are registered for application by ground sprayers, broadcast, or aerial application, and that may cause certain human health effects.  EPA rejected this request for across-the-board buffer zones as unscientific and inefficient and likely to result in a misallocation of EPA resources.  The Circuit Court concluded that “substantial evidence” supports EPA’s decision to deny this interim relief, stating that “[t]he record suggests that the risk of exposure to pesticide draft depends on a number of factors, including pesticide toxicity, the method of application, the size of pesticide droplets, and weather conditions,” and “adequately supports EPA’s conclusion that the imposition of uniform buffer zones is not the most ‘scientifically appropriate’ method for mitigating the risk of exposure to pesticide drift.”


Commentary


The Circuit Court has clearly recognized that uniform buffer zones like those sought by the petitioners would not be “scientifically appropriate.”  While this decision is both welcome by industry and constructive, the evaluation of potential exposure and risk from pesticide drift during the registration review process for individual pesticides will likely remain controversial.

More information on EPA’s spray drift policy is available in our memorandum Spray Drift and Volatilization: Issues to Navigate Carefully as EPA Develops Registration Review Decisions.