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September 9, 2022 Submitted: 09/12/2022

Comment Tracking Number:

COMMENTS: Pesticide Registration Review: Atrazine ●

Proposed Revisions to Interim Registration Review Decision Memorandum

 

Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0266-1627

https://www.regulations.gov/document/EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0266-1627

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 Proposed Revisions to Interim Registration Review Decision Memorandum regarding atrazine in aquatic plant communities, to reduce potential exposure and risk to aquatic plant communities from atrazine via runoff from agricultural uses in field corn, sweet corn, sorghum and sugarcane.

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, health, nutrition, aspirations and living standards of people, families and communities.

We presume the Agency is committed 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, agriculture, plant species and habitats.

We are concerned, however, that the Agency’s ongoing review of aquatic plant species and communities that may be exposed to atrazine will not meet these commitments; will result in inadequate and incorrect decisions on the use of this important weed control chemical; and will fail to address potential dangers to these species by commonly used organic farming industry chemicals that do not receive comparable scrutiny or monitoring by US agencies.

For the purpose of these comments, CFACT is focusing on atrazine. However, we also offer specific observations about risks associated with organic agriculture chemicals that should also be evaluated for their potential impacts on our nation’s aquatic plant species and habitats.

The Committee is aware that EPA has limited science-based, actual field information about likely effects of atrazine on aquatic plant species, communities and habitats – and that certain political groups have pressured the Agency to reexamine recent decisions and more strictly regulate the chemical’s use.

However, CFACT is concerned that EPA is mixing good, properly conducted scientific studies (that show minimal atrazine risk to aquatic plant species) with poorly conducted, largely meaningless studies that combine inadequate data, satellite imagery, statewide crop and atrazine use data, computer models, laboratory evaluations, algorithms, extrapolations and best guesses, along with irrelevant toxicity studies of non-aquatic plant species that were tested for high-level exposure to atrazine-based products.

In most cases, data were simply not available at the county level, and certainly not at farm or habitat levels, to correctly determine the likely or actual effects of actual atrazine use on actual aquatic plants, plant communities and habitats. In other cases, limited data may not have been utilized effectively.

All of this means the Agency’s findings cannot possibly be grounded in sufficient scientific data and evidence to ensure the accuracy and integrity of this Federal decision-making action; the protection of our environment, human health, and plant and animal species; or, just as importantly, the safeguarding of conventional farming practices that are the foundation of our nutrition and affordable food.

Atrazine is used on some 65 million acres of feed corn, sweet corn, sorghum and sugarcane. That is equivalent to the land area of Colorado or Oregon – but it is located on large and small plats of corn croplands scattered across a dozen Midwestern states; sorghum croplands in several Southern Plains States; and sugarcane lands in Florida and Louisiana.

In fact, farmers use atrazine in almost every state of the Union, including along the Eastern Seaboard. This vital weed control chemical is also used on millions of acres of golf courses, lawns and highway medians nationwide.

Along with glyphosate, other pesticides and other modern technologies, this vital herbicide has played a critical role in helping America’s conventional (non-organic) farmers increase their per-acre corn yields by an incredible 500% over the past seven decades – while using steadily less water, fuel, fertilizer and pesticides – to feed millions more people. Among the many reasons for this miracle is farmers’ ability to control weeds that would otherwise steal moisture, nutrients and sunlight from important food, animal feed and fuel (ethanol) crops.

Modern herbicides such as atrazine also promote no-till farming, which helps farmers reduce tractor diesel fuel consumption and air emissions, avoid breaking up soils, and reduce erosion, retain soil moisture, safeguard soil organisms, and lock carbon dioxide in the soil, which EPA itself says reduces risks of manmade climate change.

And yet, EPA is now proposing that barely detectable levels of atrazine in US aquatic ecosystems must not exceed the astonishingly low average level of 3.4 parts per billion (ppb) over a 60-day period. The agency refers to this as the “concentration equivalent level of concern,” or CE-LOC.

However, 3.4 ppb is equivalent to 3.4 seconds in 11,500 days – nearly 32 years! Atrazine isn’t plutonium. It has been used and studied since 1958, resulting in its approval as a safe and effective pesticide that has been utilized for many decades, without significantly or seriously harming non-target plants or animals. To suggest now that any concentration in water above 3.4 ppb could harm or even devastate American aquatic plants, communities, habitats and waterways defies reason and evidence-based science.

To be sure, 10 and 15 parts per billion are equivalent to only 10 and 15 seconds in 32 years, respectively. However, as elaborated on elsewhere, CE-LOC levels of 10 or 15 ppb are based on scientific data and studies, as well as Scientific Advisory Panel analyses and decisions; moreover, 10 or 15 ppb levels would not result in an effective ban on atrazine use by farmers all across the United States, whereas a 3.4 ppb CE-LOC would likely do.

An additional problem with the EPA proposal is that its analysis begins with plant 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 habitats, plant communities and even individual plants that might theoretically be impacted by atrazine.

Such an absurdly broad model has almost no relevance to the real world. It is the equivalent of noting that the “average annual temperature” across all of California is 63 degrees F, and then advising hikers in Death Valley that they should wear warm clothing at all times.

Each plant, community and habitat may react very differently to different amounts of atrazine, and each one might be affected only by amounts far in excess of 3.4 ppb – and by contact with multiple other manmade and organic chemicals – with inadequately studied lethal and sub-lethal effects on individual plants, plant communities and wider eco-systems. Issuing a blanket 3.4 ppb proclamation for atrazine does nothing to address these realities.

The organizations that have long sought a ban on atrazine (and other herbicides and insecticides) have failed to present actual evidence of actual harm linked to atrazine. They too are utilizing assumptions and extrapolations, backed up primarily by computer models, conjecture and activist pressure. That is a completely inadequate basis for a regulatory action of this magnitude.

Indeed, this proposed 3.4 ppb CE-LOC amounts to an effective ban on using atrazine-based herbicides. At the very least, it would necessitate major nationwide restrictions on atrazine use, and compel farmers to employ extensive, expensive measures to control runoff – all based on flawed computer models that were fed highly conservative “guess-timations” that were then compounded at each stage of the process to produce extreme, highly unrealistic “potential impacts” on perhaps just one individual plant or individual plant species, from atrazine levels as low as 3.4 ppb in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes.

Further exacerbating this complex problem, the proposed EPA rules would be implemented amid growing international grain shortages, widening hunger, soaring fuel and fertilizer prices, increasing mandates to turn more corn into ethanol (to replace gasoline), and other important considerations.

For conventional farmers, there is no substitute for atrazine or other modern herbicides. These chemicals 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 additional 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 crop yields – and much of that acreage would come from land that is now wildlife habitat.

All this means that this proposed EPA regulatory decision is a “major federal action,” representing a “transformative expansion” in EPA’s regulatory authority, and raising “major questions” about what the regulations will do to American agriculture and yields, US and global food supplies and prices, US farmers’ ability to feed our nation and the world, and our nation’s habitats and wildlife.

It also raises “major questions” about what specific language in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) gives EPA such enormous, unprecedented authority.

CFACT therefore believes this 3.4 ppb threshold violates the legal standards recently articulated by the United States Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA. That case restricted and rejected the Agency’s asserted authority to regulate power plants and greenhouse gases in the name of climate change – in the absence of specific statutory authority from Congress to do so.

Indeed, the Court used precisely those quoted terms to reject EPA’s assumption of authority regarding regulatory actions. The Court made it clear that no federal agency may implement a “major federal action” or “transformative expansion” in its regulatory authority, without specific statutory authority from Congress to do so.

EPA’s proposed standard would certainly result in significant, profound and widespread regional and national political, economic, agricultural, environmental and food supply consequences. It would certainly affect a significant segment of the US economy – and intrude into areas that are the province of the US Departments of Agriculture and Energy. It would certainly undermine EPA’s own fuel use reduction and climate change mitigation and prevention policies and initiatives.

CFACT can find no language in FIFRA granting EPA the authority to implement a “major federal action” on atrazine, or to institute a “transformative expansion” of EPA authority to essentially ban atrazine use, make its continued use excessively complex and expensive, and cause such widespread and significant impacts and disruptions as those the Committee has enumerated. That is especially true when we take into account the enormous economic, social and environmental benefits of using this pesticide.

We therefore question EPA’s very authority to implement this proposed regulation – unless and until it secures specific congressional authorization in FIFRA to do so.

Further underscoring the seriousness of this situation, and the major, transformative impact that this proposed 3.4 ppb CE-LOC for atrazine would have, Biden Administration policies have already made energy far more expensive than it was two years ago, increased supply chain problems for many essential consumer goods, and sent inflation to over 9% per year, compared to 1.5% in January 2021. Amid widespread hunger in Sri Lanka, and even in Germany and Britain, due to extreme green policies, EPA must be careful not to cause still more damage by implementing this unjustifiably low CE-LOC.

Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency should retain the 15 ppb CE-LOC level that was agreed to three years ago, based on multiple government, academic, industry and other studies and comments. Even returning to the 10 ppb level that was in effect before 2019 would be far more reasonable.

The fact is, in 2016, EPA proposed, considered and ultimately rejected the 3.4 ppb LOC, after numerous farmers and scientific and agricultural groups pointed out the poor science that had been employed to arrive at this unjustifiably low figure.

CFACT recognizes that EPA has offered to seek an “external peer review” of its aquatic species risk assessment and 3.4 ppb decision. However, this is wholly inadequate, and far different from having a formal, balanced Scientific Advisory Panel do a full, impartial, scientific review, under standards set by FIFRA (if a truly balanced panel could be assembled), before implementing this 3.4 ppb proposal.

EPA’s current analytical approach reflects the “precautionary principle” at its worst: focusing on alleged, often highly speculative risks of using chemicals – rarely or never on the risks of not using them; highlighting risks a chemical might allegedly or theoretically 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 concerns. If EPA is truly worried about chemical threats to aquatic plant (and other) species, it would examine not only conventional, synthetic, manmade chemicals – but also “natural” and “organic” chemicals. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of EPA’s regulatory duty and commitment to evidence-based policies and actions if it fails to conduct extensive and rigorous biological evaluations of organic chemical impacts on aquatic plant species and habitats, and other species.

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) has long been used as a fungicide on 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 threatened or endangered species. Copper sulfate is also toxic to many aquatic plants, and indeed is often used to control aquatic algae.

This compound binds with soil particles and may not be a serious runoff problem unless it is used close to aquatic environments; but careful, rigorous study is still necessary.

  • The LD50 for rotenone is even lower: 132 mg/kg. A small amount will kill every fish in an entire woodland pond. This highly toxic chemical can enhance the onset of Parkinson’s disease and yet has frequently been used in conjunction with pyrethrin neurotoxin pesticides. Rotenone may also adversely affect the growth and metabolism of aquatic plants.

Although this chemical is now allowed only “with restrictions” on organic farms, and is legally permitted only under certain conditions, it is still used and therefore must be evaluated.

  • Pyrethrin (LD50: 200-2600 mg/kg) pesticides are highly toxic to bees, and to fish and other aquatic species. Originally derived from flowers, pyrethrins are now synthesized; so they are no longer even organic. EPA has called pyrethrins a likely human carcinogen, and they have been linked to breathing difficulties, leukemia and infertility 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. It can cause plant leaves to yellow, brown and die. Boron fertilizers in water can adversely affect the early growth of certain aquatic plants.

  • 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. It is classified as a potent water pollutant that is harmful to aquatic ecosystems and animals.

These and many other organic farming chemicals could harm the very aquatic plants, plant communities and habitats that EPA is concerned about. It is imperative that they be examined by EPA and other agencies responsible for protecting our health and environment.

However, up to now, those “organic” chemical risks to America’s aquatic, marine and terrestrial plants, insects, fish, birds and animals have not been examined – much less quantified or regulated – by EPA or any other federal agencies that we are aware of.

Scores of other harmful, dangerous, even toxic chemicals have been approved for use in organic farming. However, they too have rarely, if ever, been tested by the EPA, and certainly have not undergone any form of biological evaluation for their impacts on plant species and their habitats, even as already oft-tested conventional chemicals, including atrazine, are being regulated out of common use.

In fact, these and other toxic “organic,” “natural” fertilizers and pesticides are “approved” for organic farming and home garden use, often with few or no advisories about their potentially harmful or lethal effects on people, wildlife, non-target insects, and aquatic plants and animals. These dangers are likely to become far more serious as organic farming, practices and chemicals become more widespread.

If EPA’s goal is protecting aquatic plants and environments, the agency must apply sound science and robust scientific analyses to both atrazine and organic farming chemicals. If its goal is banning modern agricultural chemicals, the 3.4 ppb CE-LOC would be a good first step – but EPA must start preparing Americans for more expensive foods, poorer diets, the loss of significant wildlife habitat land to less productive agriculture, and other adverse consequences noted in these comments.

CFACT strongly believes it is an abdication of EPA’s responsibilities not to examine organic chemicals with the same level of scrutiny as is being applied to atrazine. It is an equal abdication of EPA’s responsibilities not to consider, respond to and act on other points made in these comments regarding atrazine and atrazine-based herbicides.

Thank you for considering our information and recommendations – and for ensuring that atrazine is not excessively regulated or effectively banned from the list of important conventional agricultural tools.

Respectfully submitted,

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen, Senior Policy Advisor

Author

  • Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and author of Cracking Big Green and Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.