Ian Blodger, MJLST Note & Comment Editor
In Pollinator Stewardship Council v. U.S. E.P.A., the Ninth Circuit recently took action to protect honeybees from dangerous chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The case is a unique situation because the great deference with which the court reviews the EPA’s pesticide approval decisions means these approvals are rarely overturned.
The EPA has the authority to approve pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). FIFRA allows the EPA to deny approval for pesticide licensing if doing so would prevent unreasonable adverse effects, including risks to the environment. 7 U.S.C. § 136a(a). In approving the use of a new pesticide, the EPA may choose to approve the pesticide conditionally or unconditionally. Conditional approval essentially means the EPA has insufficient data to determine the overall effects of the pesticide, and will allow use of the pesticide for a limited time to determine its impacts. Unconditional approval indicates the EPA has sufficient data to know the pesticide’s environmental effects. The court reviews the EPA’s decision to approve a new pesticide “if it is supported by substantial evidence when considered on the record as a whole” 7 U.S.C. § 136n(b).
This specific case centers around three new pesticides for which Dow Agrosciences sought approval. Each of these pesticides contained sulfoxaflor as its main ingredient. Following testing on individual bees, the EPA concluded sulfaxaflor was highly toxic to bees. After completing additional, though limited studies, the EPA concluded that there would be no way to determine the ultimate impact of the pesticide on the honeybee population unless the pesticide underwent testing under real world conditions. As such the EPA initially proposed to conditionally approve the use of sulfaxaflor pesticides while the agency collected additional data.
The EPA then reconsidered its previous conclusion, and decided to grant unconditional approval to the pesticide so long as certain mitigation measures were put in place. The EPA had no evidence as to the effectiveness of these measures.
Looking to this, the court determined that the record as a whole did not support the EPA’s decision to unconditionally approve the three sulfaxaflor based pesticides. The court’s decision rested on the fact that there was no evidence in the record suggesting the mitigation measures were sufficient to protect honeybees. As a result, the court vacated the EPA’s approval of the pesticides, and remanded the case to the EPA for further studies.
While this outcome does not prevent the EPA from conditionally approving sulfaxaflor, the Ninth Circuit’s analysis will hopefully serve as a reminder to agencies tasked with protecting valuable national resources to take their task seriously.