CFACT’s Senior Policy Advisor, Paul Driessen, submitted official testimony to the EPA opposing attempts to ban the use of highly important chemicals that are commonly used by farmers to prevent weed infestations.
Specifically, Mr. Driessen addressed the Draft Endangered Species Act Biological Evaluations covering the chemicals Atrazine, Simazine and Propazine Registration Review.
These safe chemicals are essential to America’s farming capability, which not only keeps Americans fed, but also helps feed the world.
You can read Mr. Driessen’s comments in full below:
February 19, 2021 Comment Tracking Number klc-ow6i-b2tc
Submitted 2/19/21 2:30 pm
COMMENTS: Draft Endangered Species Act Biological Evaluations:
Atrazine, Simazine and Propazine Registration Review
Docket Number EPA-HQ-OPP-2020-0514
Dear Environmental Protection Agency:
The Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT or the Committee) appreciates this opportunity to submit comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (Agency or EPA) on its Draft Endangered Species Act Biological Evaluations: Atrazine, Simazine and Propazine Registration Review.
With headquarters in Washington, DC, the Committee is a 501(c)(3) national and international environmental and educational organization dedicated to protecting both wildlife and ecological values and the needs and aspirations of people, families and communities.
We appreciate the Agency’s commitment to making evidence-based decisions, developing policies and programs that are guided by the best available scientific data, ensuring the integrity of Federal decision-making, and protecting our environment, human health, and plant and animal species.
We are concerned, however, that the Agency’s ongoing biological review of threatened and endangered species for atrazine, simazine and propazine will not meet these commitments; will result in inadequate and incorrect decisions on the use of these chemicals; and will fail to address the dangers posed to these species by poisonous but largely untested chemicals used regularly by the organic farming industry.
For the purpose of these comments, CFACT is focusing on atrazine. However, our observations about atrazine generally apply to simazine and propazine. We also offer other specific observations about risks associated with organic agriculture chemicals that we believe also need to be evaluated for their potential impacts on our nation’s plant and animal species and habitats.
We are aware that the courts gave EPA limited time to analyze possible effects of atrazine on threatened and endangered species and their habitats, in response to lawsuits claiming the Agency had not properly considered those effects during the pesticide review process for listed and candidate species.
We also recognize that the courts have instructed EPA to determine whether there is “moderate” or “strong” evidence that species and habitats on the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) “threatened or endangered” list (as well as candidates for listing) will likely be killed or otherwise adversely affected by commonly used synthetic herbicides and insecticides – and that EPA’s “biological evaluation” of each chemical will serve as the foundation for further analyses by the FWS regarding potential effects of these chemicals on each species. That FWS work will also be under tight court deadlines.
CFACT is deeply concerned that these court-ordered deadlines – and the inadequate data, funding and personnel for proper evaluations of atrazine effects on each listed species – have forced EPA to resort to satellite imagery, statewide crop and atrazine use data, computer models, algorithms, extrapolations and best guesses, along with available but inadequate toxicity studies of rats, hamsters, other lab animals, and plants tested for the pre-emergent weed control chemical’s effectiveness. Data were not available (or were not used) at the county level, and certainly not at the farm or habitat level.
All of this means the Agency’s findings cannot possibly be grounded in sufficient scientific data and evidence to ensure the integrity of Federal decision-making; the protection of our environment, human health, and plant and animal species; or, just as importantly, the safeguarding of conventional farming that is the foundation of our nutrition and affordable food.
EPA has produced a document that claims 1,013 species and 328 endangered or threatened habitats are “likely to be adversely affected” by somehow encountering atrazine, if it is inadvertently sprayed on them, small amounts “drift” into these habitats, or animals wander into a sprayed yard, farmer’s field, golf course or highway median.
These numbers represent most of the endangered or threatened species and critical habitats in the continental United States. The numbers would have been higher, except that, as EPA notes, atrazine manufacturers “committed to limit use of atrazine products” to the continental USA.
Ultimately, the EPA and FWS must decide whether to let current rules stand – or restrict or ban atrazine nationwide, regionally, or near some or all of the species’ habitats and areas they may occasionally visit.
EPA’s list includes 36 amphibians, 207 aquatic invertebrates, 190 fish, 47 reptiles, 108 birds, 99 mammals, 160 insects and invertebrates, and 948 plants. At least 8 of the species are already extinct, and dozens more live in mountains, deserts and other areas that will likely never be touched by atrazine.
CFACT believes EPA’s effort has been commendable – perhaps the best possible under the circumstances. However, it is simply not good enough, certainly not for decisions with such monumental, far-reaching implications for America’s agriculture, especially since these evaluations are likely to be grounds for many more lawsuits against other vital chemicals.
Agency findings are presented in complex equations, over 100 pages of explanations of data and methodologies, and mind-numbing, almost incomprehensible spreadsheets, some of which involve over 1,800 rows and 30 columns. They will undoubtedly impress citizens and courts, politicians and journalists with the expertise, precision and detail they supposedly reflect.
But in reality, in the end, these biological evaluations are sadly, mostly GIGO (garbage in, garbage out): multiple uncertainties in, multiple black box analyses conducted, multiple questionable conclusions out.
The EPA analysis begins with species whose actual populations and presence in specific parts of possible ranges and habitats are mostly unknown. It then utilizes statewide crop planting and atrazine use data, averaged out and applied to possible habitats and individual plants or animals. Each of those plants and animals, as individuals or as a species, may react very differently to different amounts of atrazine, and may contact them as direct or drifting spray, diluted promptly or over weeks in soil or water, ingested orally or by breathing, or contacting the animal’s skin or plant’s surface.
Other unknown factors include the number of sprays per year in any or all of these countless thousands of areas; whether they were done by hand, tractor or aircraft; what the wind speed and direction and ambient temperature were at the time of spraying; how far the spraying was from each habitat and each individual plant or animal; what amounts of atrazine actually made contact each time and over extended periods of time; and whether an individual or species reacts to some unknown amount of atrazine the same way a very different laboratory animal did, with lethal or sublethal effects.
Even assuming a wildly optimistic 90% confidence level for each of these 12-15 or more unknowns, calculating the ultimate “strongest” evidence of harmful impacts requires multiplying the presumptive 90% (0.9) confidence for each element – thus 0.9 x 0.9 twelve or more times. The best possible scenario ends up being a ridiculously low 28% confidence that the agency’s ultimate findings are valid. Indeed the confidence level could easily be 10% or even less.
That is useless and unacceptable. Decisions affecting America’s farms, produce and dinner tables must not be made so cavalierly, on the basis of such patently insufficient evidence and rank guesswork.
Moreover, even if the EPA and FWS do ban atrazine, such an action will provide no guarantees whatsoever that we will be blessed with the prolonged existence of species that are already marginal and threatened by countless other human and natural factors, including: chemicals used in organic farming, solar panels that will increasingly blanket wildlife habitats, biofuel plantations on other lands that would otherwise be wildlife habitats, and wind turbines that kill endangered bats, raptors and other birds.
These chemicals and technologies must also be examined by the EPA and FWS.
For conventional farmers, there is no substitute for atrazine or other modern herbicides, which are more effective, less toxic and more biodegradable than their predecessors. In their absence, corn yields would likely decline by 40% or more – and growers would have to control weeds by hand (likely by thousands of migrant workers and their children) and by regularly tilling and disking their fields.
Plowing, tilling and disking also mean tractor mileage and fuel would skyrocket, crops would need more water and irrigation, soils would lose their integrity and indigenous organisms, carbon sequestration would plummet, millions of tons of farmland would erode annually, and food prices would increase significantly. Millions more acres would have to be planted to get today’s cumulative corn and other yields – and much of that acreage would come from land that is now wildlife habitat.
This analytical approach reflects the “precautionary principle” at its very worst: always focusing on alleged, often highly speculative risks of using chemicals – rarely or never on the risks of not using them; always highlighting risks a technology allegedly might cause, but ignoring often far greater risks it would reduce or prevent; rarely, if ever, evaluating risks associated with politically favored technologies.
That brings the Committee to its final suggestion. If EPA is truly concerned about chemical threats to these and other species, it would examine not only conventional, synthetic chemicals – but also organic chemicals. Indeed, it is a dereliction of its regulatory duty and commitment to evidence-based policies and actions not to conduct biological evaluations of organic chemical impacts on these threatened and endangered species and their habitats.
Atrazine has an LD50 of 3090 mg/kg for rats; it takes 3,090 milligrams per kilogram of body weight to kill half of a test group of rats that ingest it orally. Many organic farm chemicals are far more toxic, and would likely pose enormous threats to the species EPA is evaluating. To cite just a few examples:
Copper sulfate (LD50: 300) is used as a fungicide on numerous organic farms. It is ten times more toxic than atrazine. Not only is it deadly to fish, harmful to avian and mammalian reproductive systems, and highly persistent and bio-accumulative in soil and water; it is also poisonous to sheep and chickens, toxic to humans, and likely toxic to many of these threatened or endangered species.
The LD50 for rotenone is 132 mg/kg. A small amount will kill every fish in an entire woodland pond. This highly toxic, even deadly chemical can enhance the onset of Parkinson’s disease and yet has frequently been used in conjunction with pyrethrin neurotoxin pesticides.
Pyrethrin (LD50: 200-2600 mg/kg) and neem oil (LD50: 3540 mg/kg) pesticides are highly toxic to bees. Originally derived from flowers, pyrethrin is now synthesized; so it is not even organic. EPA has called pyrethrin a likely human carcinogen, and it has been linked to leukemia in human users.
Boron fertilizer (LD50: 560 mg/kg) ingested or absorbed through the skin or nasal passages can be toxic to the human liver and heart – and is harmful to a wide variety of insects and animals.
Lime sulfur (LD50: 820 mg/kg), used for disease control on organic fruit trees, is highly toxic to earthworms and can be fatal to humans if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin.
Nicotine sulfate (LD50 of only 60 mg/kg for rats) is a neurotoxin pesticide used to control aphids, mites and other insects. It is highly toxic to beneficial insects, causes abnormalities in animal offspring, and can be poisonous to humans.
Scores of other toxic, dangerous, harmful chemicals have been approved for use in organic farming. However, they have rarely, if ever, been tested by the EPA or FWS, and certainly have not undergone any form of biological evaluation for their impacts on threatened or endangered species and their habitats, as is now being done (at a superficial level) for already oft-tested conventional chemicals, including atrazine.
And yet these toxic, dangerous, harmful “organic,” “natural” fertilizers and pesticides are approved for organic farming. They are also likely to contact, harm and kill threatened and endangered wildlife, and contaminate their habitats and areas they visit – especially as organic farming becomes more widespread.
It is essential that the Environmental Protection Agency initiate studies of the effects of these organic farm chemicals on EPA’s list of threatened and endangered species, before possibly irreparable harm befalls them. Indeed, we emphasize once more, it is an abdication of EPA’s responsibilities not to examine organic chemicals with at least the same level of scrutiny as is being applied to atrazine.
Thank you for considering our information and recommendations – and for ensuring that atrazine is not excessively regulated or removed from the list of vitally important conventional agricultural tools.
Senior Policy Advisor