How Congress Could Allow More Toxic Pesticides Into America's Waterways

Nearly 2,000 U.S. waterways are already impaired by pesticide contamination. A new bill would make it even worse.

farmers spraying pesticide in wheat field wearing protective clothing
Photo Credit: Jinning Li/Shutterstock

The Agriculture Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill last week that will eliminate protections from toxic pesticides for the nation’s waterways. The bill now moves on to the full House for a vote and the public has an opportunity to let Representatives hear the concerns about weakening local protection of waterways from toxic pesticides. HR 953The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act (code for the sponsors and supporters as legislation to eliminate environmental protection of water quality), is the committee’s latest effort in a multi-year string of attempts to rollback common sense protections for the public waterways all Americans use for swimming, fishing, and other forms of recreation. The bill would repeal the Clean Water Act requirement that those who apply pesticides to waterways, with an exemption for farm use pesticides not directly deposited into waterways, obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Last May, at the height of fears over the Zika epidemic, the same Committee ushered through the same bill under another misleading name,The Zika Vector Control Act. Pensive lawmakers and the public saw through the ruse, and the bill was defeated. But, like previous iterations, including the 2015 Sensible Environmental Protection Act, lawmakers ostensibly grandstanding against over-regulation are, in fact, advancing the economic interests of toxic chemical producers and users.

A 2009 decision issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of National Cotton Council et al. v. EPA, held that pesticides applied to waterways should be considered pollutants under federal law and regulated under the Clean Water Act. Prior to the decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the Bush Administration, had allowed the weaker and more generalized standards under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to be followed. This allowed pesticides to be discharged into U.S. waterways without any federal oversight, as FIFRA does not require tracking such applications and assessing the adverse effects on local ecosystems.

In a statement, the House Agriculture Committee praised itself for working to eliminate “costly and duplicative burdens,” However, the facts do not bear this out. Under current law, pesticide applicators only have to fill out one permit, and the permit simply lets authorities know what is sprayed and when it is sprayed. This information is needed to understand whether there are potential dangers to sensitive aquatic ecosystems. It also informs the public on the chemicals being used in their waterways. Pesticide regulations under FIFRA do not achieve these protections, and despite the 2009 ruling, most agricultural pesticide applications are exempt from CWA permit requirements.

To be clear, HR 953 would:

(1) undermine federal authority to protect U.S. waters under the Clean Water Act, 
(2) allow spraying of toxic chemicals into waterways without local and state oversight,
(3) not reduce claimed burdens to farmers since there is currently no burden as there is no real economic cost and agricultural activities are exempt, and
(4) contaminate drinking water sources and harm aquatic life.

Already, nearly 2,000 waterways are impaired by pesticide contamination and many more have simply not been tested. The potentially high cost of public health problems, environmental clean-up efforts, and irreversible ecological damage that can result from unchecked, indiscriminate pollution of waterways is being ignored by opponents of CWA regulations.

Beyond Pesticides continues to fight to prevent water pollution and harmful agricultural practices. Visit our Threatened Waters page, and learn how organic land management practices protect waterways in the article, Organic Land Management and the Protection of Water Quality. Do your part and please send a letter to your Congressional Representative urging him/her to reject HR953, and then follow-up with a phone call to their office.

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