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May 20, 2019
Agency to refine endangered species pesticide assessments

The EPA is proposing to take a new approach to how it evaluates the impact pesticides have on endangered species. According to the Agency, its draft Revised Method for National Level Endangered Species Risk Assessment Process for Biological Evaluations of Pesticides is intended to correct overly conservative pilot biological evaluations (BEs) the EPA previously conducted for three pesticides— chlorpyrifos, diazinon, and malathion. Upon its formal publication in the Federal Register, the Agency will accept public comment on the draft for 45 days.

“EPA’s draft framework allows the agency to consider real-world data that will better reflect where pesticides are actually used and which species could be affected and those that are not likely to be affected,” said Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Assistant Administrator of the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “Making these revisions to the framework will follow through on EPA’s commitments under the 2018 Farm Bill and will help EPA target environmental protections where they are needed and ensure that pesticides can continue to be used safely without impacting endangered species.”  

2017 BiOps withdrawn

The EPA’s BEs “inform” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which issue biological opinions (BiOps) to determine whether federal actions are likely to result in jeopardy for listed species or adverse modification of their critical habitats. In this case, the federal action to be addressed by the BEs is the registration of the three pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The Services had completed draft BiOps for these substances in 2017, but the documents were not released to the public. Issuance of the BiOps is now scheduled for 2021.

Limitations of existing method

According to the Agency, the method used in the pilot evaluations had the following major limitations:

  • It did not meaningfully distinguish between species that are either likely or not likely to be exposed to and affected by the assessed pesticides.
  • The level of effort was too high for the EPA to sustain for all pesticides.
  • The amount of documentation produced was too great for the public to review and comment upon in a reasonable time frame.

The proposed revised method, the EPA now says, is based on experience gained through the pilot BEs and on information received in public comments on the draft pilot BEs as well as through several stakeholder meetings. According to the Agency, the revised method is designed to be efficient, relying upon automation as much as possible; protective without being overly conservative; transparent; and scientifically defensible, relying on the best available data.

Proposed changes

The EPA is requesting comment on the following changes included in the draft:

  • First, to more accurately represent where and to what extent a pesticide is likely to be applied, the Agency is proposing an approach for incorporating pesticide-specific usage data into the listed species consultation process. The pilot BEs relied on use-assumptions from pesticide product labels to represent where the pilot chemicals were likely to be applied (e.g., applied to all labeled crops at maximum application rates simultaneously). The revised method proposes to incorporate usage data such as survey data, including actual application rates, in determining where a pesticide is likely to be applied.
  • Second, based on the accuracy of the spatial data utilized and the conservative assumptions related to the action area and potential drift, the EPA is interpreting a more than 1 percent overlap of listed species’ ranges with potential use sites as unreliable and not representative of real exposure potential.
  • Third, the EPA is proposing the use of probabilistic methods to determine the likelihood that a species will be adversely affected by a pesticide. The goal of the probabilistic analysis is to more fully capture and characterize variability in the range of potential exposures and toxicological effects to listed species and to better inform the biological opinion.
  • Fourth, the EPA seeks to apply a weight-of-evidence framework to distinguish those listed species that are likely to be adversely affected from those that are not likely to be adversely affected. This framework would be based on criteria (e.g., dietary preferences, migration patterns, extent of range potentially exposed) associated with the likelihood that an individual will be exposed and affected.
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