BY PETER BELAND
A legal battle that has waged for more than eight years over the enforcement of pesticide buffers between farmland and bodies of water that would protect endangered salmonids heats up as conservation groups confront antagonism from legislators.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) recently delivered a speech on the House floor, claiming that the buffer zones could take a hypothetical 108-acre farm and shave it down to 10-acres. “This crop field, which now produces $21,000 in income — if the federal government’s rules as full described here — you’d be down to $1,500,” he said. Walden went on to say the buffer zones could take 40 percent to 67 percent of Oregon’s farmland out of production, based on statistics from the early 1990s. He and 17 other Congressmen co-signed a letter written by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Washington) in late January to Council of Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley. They are protesting the enforcement of the buffers that have been drawn up based on continuing studies done by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Though the parameters of the buffer zones are there, the Environmental Protection Agency has so far only asked for voluntary labeling of three pesticides identified by National Marine Fisheries Services scientists as harmful to salmonids if sprayed within 100 to 1,000 feet of streams. For the remaining pesticides that have not been studied in depth, the EPA is enforcing a 60 to 300 foot buffer.
A number of conservation groups represented by Oakland-based environmental law firm EarthJustice filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency last November for its failure to enforce the pesticide restrictions as required by a Biological Opinion report done by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It is the latest in a string of lawsuits that began in 2002 when a federal judge in Washington required the EPA to consult with the NMFS to assess the impact of 37 pesticides on salmonids as required by the Endangered Species Act. “The EPA has an obligation to comply with the ESA,” says EarthJustice attorney Amanda Goodwin.
The lawsuit stresses that the EPA must abide by the findings of the first of 17 planned biological opinions, completed in 2008. The first biological opinion recommends 100 to 1,000 foot buffers for three pesticides. Two more biological opinions have been done since that time and the findings of three more will be released next month. The remaining 13 biological opinions will be completed by February 2012. “This process has worked for decades,” says Goodwin of the ESA consultation process by which all federal agencies refer to the NMFS to address concerns of harm to endangered wildlife.
Representatives from Oregon’s farming community disagree, claiming the process is rooted in faulty science and lack of stakeholder input. “We believe they didn’t use the best available data,” says Oregonians for Food and Shelter executive director Terry Witt. “They relied very heavily on models.” According to Witt, the models predicted pesticide amounts in the waterways thousands of times greater than recorded levels.
The EPA told Oregon Business today via e-mail that, concerning accusations from conservationists that it was not fulfilling its obligations to enforce the buffers, it "will respond to the plaintiffs' allegations through the appropriate legal channels." In response to anti-buffer advocates' lack of faith regarding NMFS' methods to determine how harmful a given pesticide is, the EPA said that "...several public meetings have been held by NMFS to obtain input on how additional information such as crop locations, agricultural practices and water quality monitoring data may best be used in the course of ESA consultations."
Peter Beland is a contributing writer for Oregon Business.