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.
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.