EPA and the “Services” Establish Interagency Working Group to Address a Process for Streamlining ESA Pesticide Consultations

On January 31, 2018, EPA announced the establishment of an Interagency Working Group pursuant to a Memorandum of Agreement between EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (i.e., the “Services”), aimed at facilitating and improving the coordination of agency consultations required under Section 7(a)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in assessing the impacts of pesticide registration actions on threatened species and habitats.

In seeking to devise a streamlined mechanism that would eliminate many of the impediments that have encumbered the pesticide consultation process, the Working Group will:

  • Review the statutory requirements under ESA and FIFRA, existing regulations for the pesticide consultation process, and case law that has developed around the intersection of ESA and FIFRA;
  • Examine current and previous pesticide consultations to identify areas for management as well as best practices that should be used in pesticide consultations;
  • Develop recommendations on scientific and policy approaches to ESA pesticide consultations that would more clearly differentiate and identify which actions require no consultation, informal consultation, or formal consultation; and
  • Provide clarity on what constitutes “best scientific and commercial data available” with regard to pesticide use and ecological risk assessment.

Background

Section 7 of the ESA directs all federal agencies to use their existing authorities to conserve threatened and endangered species and, in consultation with the Services, to ensure that their actions do not jeopardize listed species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.  This ESA directive applies to all EPA pesticide licensing activities.  When EPA registers a pesticide, the Agency is required under FIFRA to ensure that the proposed action does not cause any unreasonable adverse effect on the environment.

If EPA determines that a proposed pesticide registration action will have no effect on any listed species or designated critical habitat, consultation is not required. A determination that a proposed pesticide registration action is not likely to adversely affect any listed species or designated critical habitat is subject to “informal consultation” with the Services, the result of which is typically a letter in which the Services concur or non-concur with EPA’s determination.  If the Services do not concur with EPA’s determination that a pesticide is not likely to adversely affect a listed species or habitat or if EPA determines that a pesticide registration action is likely to adversely affect a listed species or critical habitat, EPA is required to engage with the Services in a process called “formal consultation.”  At the completion of formal consultation, the Services may propose reasonable and prudent alternatives, to the extent available, to avoid jeopardy to a listed species or habitat.

Historically, the EPA and the Services have differed in their approach to meeting their ESA obligations in assessing the environmental risks of pesticides to listed species and habitats.  This has resulted in a consultation process that is complex and vulnerable to lengthy delays.  In addition, ambiguity in the definition of “best available scientific data” upon which ESA decisions are made has further contributed to the challenges of developing a streamlined process for consultation on the ESA effects of pesticides.  These challenges have given rise to costly litigation brought against the Agency by environmental and public interest groups citing the lack of a procedural framework for FIFRA-ESA consultation.  This litigation, in turn, has resulted in the imposition of court mandated use restrictions such as buffer zones and other product application restrictions set forth in settlement agreements between the EPA and the litigants.  The difficulties inherent in the pesticide consultation process is further exacerbated by the fact that EPA is required to complete registration review of more than 700 chemical dockets by a statutory deadline of 2023 including an assessment of these pesticides for their potential effects on threatened species and habitats.

AUTHOR

Diane Schute

All stories by: Diane Schute