EPA expands use of pesticide considered 'very highly toxic' to bees

EPA expands use of pesticide considered 'very highly toxic' to bees
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Friday it would allow for the expanded use of a pesticide it considers toxic to bees, a move that comes just days after the Trump administration said it was suspending data collection on bee populations.

The pesticide known as sulfoxaflor will be permitted for use on certain crops for the first time, and in other areas that were prohibited under the Obama administration.

The agency considers sulfoxaflor “very highly toxic” to bees.

In a call with reporters to announce the decision, a top EPA official emphasized the agency’s research on the pesticide's effects on bees and said the rule was designed with pollinators in mind.

“To reduce exposure to bees, the product label will have crop-specific restrictions and important pollinator protection language,” including limits on how close to bloom sulfoxaflor can be sprayed, the official said.

But it may be difficult to monitor whether the regulations spare bees as intended. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it was suspending one of the few remaining government data sets that monitor bee populations and loss.

The EPA did not respond to additional questions from The Hill about how it would monitor the impacts of its new guidelines for the pesticide.

Sulfoxaflor's use has long been contentious. It was temporarily barred after a lawsuit from beekeepers in 2015, and the EPA in 2016 changed its instructions for how to use the pesticide in a way designed to reduce the impact on bees.

“At a time when honeybees and other pollinators are dying in greater numbers than ever before, Trump’s EPA decision to remove restrictions on yet another bee-killing pesticide is nothing short of reckless," Earthjustice, which fought sulfoxaflor use in the 2015 suit, said in a statement Friday. "Scientists have long said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are the cause of the unprecedented colony collapse. Letting sulfoxaflor back on the market is dangerous for our food system, economy, and environment.”

EPA said it was spurred to reconsider uses of sulfoxaflor following numerous emergency requests from states — many of which the agency granted — to allow the use of the pesticide on certain crops. It contends sulfoxaflor is safer than the alternatives.

When pressed for more information on the studies that showed the new regulations would be safer for bees, the EPA official said, “most of the studies that we used were indeed sponsored by industry. That is common practice in the pesticide program.”

The official noted that companies are required to contract with outside labs and share their data with the EPA.

Companies are expected to cover the costs associated with their applications for approval of a pesticide.

Farmers will once again be able to use sulfoxaflor on citrus, cotton and types of squash, and the pesticide can now be used on alfalfa, corn, cocoa, grains and pineapple, among others, for the first time.

In some cases, farmers will not be able to spray sulfoxaflor within three days of bloom, but bee activists say the pesticide can remain in the soil and harm bees.

Bees are key in the production of almost a third of U.S. crops, spurring a commercial bee industry that brings colonies from field to field to pollinate farmers’ fields.

The expanded use of sulfoxaflor is likely to spur legal action.

“The Trump EPA’s reckless approval of this bee-killing pesticide across 200 million U.S. acres of crops like strawberries and watermelon without any public process is a terrible blow to imperiled pollinators,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program, said in a statement to The Hill.

“With no opportunity for independent oversight or review, this autocratic administration’s appalling decision to bow to industry and grant broad approval for this highly toxic insecticide leaves us with no choice but to take legal action,” she added.

The EPA said the economic plight of farmers was a factor in its decision. The agency said growers could see net revenue losses of up to 50 percent if they aren't able to use the pesticide.

Burd said pesticides like sulfoxaflor are dangerous to bees because they attack the nervous system, causing bees to get confused and diminishing their appetite.

“They don’t respond as well to predators ... cognitive loss is causing them to die as they get lost in the field,” she told The Hill earlier this week.