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Pollinator Protection: Experts Question EPA's Commitment to Bees [FEATURE]

Sep 15, 2015 06:30 AM EDT
(Photo : Pixabay)

On Thursday, a federal appeals court overturned the EPA's decision to approve marketing of sulfoxaflor, a pesticide that acts like the same neonicotinoids class associated with bee declines. The blocking of this approval has now put the EPA under careful scrutiny by environmental watchdog groups around the US, with the agency's commitment to pollinator protection being called into question.

[You can read more about the decision here]

"I am inclined to believe the EPA... decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to [investor] pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate," Circuit Judge N.R. Smith added in a scathing addendum to the court's main opinion.

Come press time, an EPA representative told Nature World News that the agency is considering action against the decision, adding that the approval's repeal wont occur for at least 45 days.

But Wait, Neo... What? [To jump to complaints against the EPA click here]

Concerns about sulfoxaflor all arose from the fact that it acts just like a member of the neonicotinoid class of pesticides.

It's no secret that pollinators are in trouble across the world, with worrying declines and even outright extinctions occurring within the last decade. This first gained national attention in the US back in 2006, when experts began reporting the stunning mass deaths of honeybees. (Scroll to read on...)

dead bee
(Photo : pixabay)

These deaths were quickly tied to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which bees wake from hibernation in the dead of winter and abandon their hive only to freeze soon after.

So what's waking them? According to an ever growing mountain of evidence, the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics, are playing a role (alongside parasites and other disease). The pesticides are most commonly used as seed coatings - an weapon against ground-dwelling pests who would prevent plants from rooting. However, a study released back in 2014 revealed that these deadly toxins can remain present in a plant's pollen and nectar even years after a seed is treated, summarily poisoning bees and leading to CCD.

Researchers have even determined that neonics affect wild bees too, likely contributing to the decline of bumblebees in the US and Europe.

"The science is clear. Neonicotinoids are harmful to pollinators, and without pollinators, [our] food supply is at risk," Katherine Paul, associate director of the Organic Consumers Association, wrote in a open letter to the White House back in April.

Since this information was disclosed, a growing number of retailers have sworn off selling any plants treated with neonics. Similarly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced  that it would be "phasing out" neonics in their wildlife refuges by 2016. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Day Donaldson)

Even the EPA got involved, finding that soy farmers - who have been encouraged to use these pesticides to stave off seed predation - rarely ever benefited from neonics.

"In our analysis of the economic benefits of this use we concluded that, on a national scale, US soybean farmers see little or no benefit from neonicotinoid seed treatments," Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a statement.

The take away, EPA investigators admitted, is that many US bees - declining by a stunning 40 percent in the last year alone - may have died for nothing.

Perplexing Pollinator Politics

It's then quite a head scratcher that the same agency that had declared neonic coatings as risky and potentially useless would also approve the marketing of a substance they even write "works in a similar way to neonicotinoids" already on the market.

Yes, the approval was made prior to the EPA's soy bean investigation's publication, but the product itself was also acknowledged as a neonic-like pesticide recommended for soybean crops in that same report.

"Such action seems capricious," said judge Smith. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

Interestingly, this is not the only time the agency's actions regarding pesticides have been questioned.

In accordance with demands from the US government's Pollinator Health Task Force, the EPA recently proposed a New Rule for pollinator protection - one that would put the responsibilities of restricting pesticide use and the enforcement of those restrictions in the hands of state officials.

"EPA is working with state and tribal agencies to develop and implement local pollinator protection plans, known as Managed Pollinator Protection Plans (MP3s)," the agency recently announced. "For example, state and tribal MP3s may address pesticide-related risks to all pollinators, including managed bees and wild pollinators."

And while such a flexible plan can be beneficial, some environmental watchdog groups are worried the EPA is subtly washing it's hands of the matter.

"We're concerned that the EPA is passing the buck, ignoring clear science... and not actively seeking solutions," Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth (FoE), explained.

"States are being tasked with creating Pollinator Protection Plans with little funding support," Michele Colopy, program director of the Pollinator Stewardship Council, added. "At a minimum, states need funding for apiary inspectors and lab testing of hive matrices and honey bees." (Scroll to read on...)

A beekeeper calms bees with a smoker before inspecting the hive.
(Photo : Guy Stubbs) A beekeeper calms bees with a smoker before inspecting the hive.

This funding, she says, remains unaccounted for in many states. Meanwhile, states like Massachusetts are turning to a consortia of agricultural industry experts to head their planning, largely ignoring the concerns of citizen bee keepers.

"The seven county beekeeping organizations, comprising over 80 percent of state beekeepers, were never informed this consortia existed and when discovered were initially banned from their meetings," MA beekeeper, Richard Callahan complained. "The EPA should be aware that the agri-chemical industry is attempting to hijack the entire pollinator program in order to protect neonics... This is a cynical enterprise."

A FOIA Fight

And Callahan is not alone in his suspicions. Last August, FoE even submitted a Freedom of Information Act to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting meeting minutes and communications between the EPA planners and representatives of the pesticide industry.

"Friends of the Earth submitted this FOIA due to concerns raised by beekeepers around undue pesticide industry influence on the development of the EPA's pollinator and pesticide policies," the group explained.

On September 1, that request was denied, but not before the EPA approved a different FOIA made by CropLife America, one of the companies named in the FoE request. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

The nature of their request, CropLife representatives quickly pointed out, was very different than the FoE request, as it asked for "documents, records and materials from EPA relating to adverse incident reports relating to honey bees/other pollinators and pesticide products from 1995 through the present" - all to help the company comment on the 2015 New Plan.

The FoE request, on the other hand, simply "serves as a public relations stunt," according to CropLife America President and CEO Jay Vroom.

"I personally reject FoE statements implying that somehow I, my colleagues at CLA and the members of our association have some secretive, undue influence with regulators at the [EPA]," he said in a statement, adding that he is "disappointed" in FoE's decision to waste the EPA's time.

"CropLife America can't have it both ways. They can't use FOIA when it benefits them, but claim that other groups should refrain from uncovering information regarding their industry," FoE's Finck-Haynes quickly lashed back. "If CropLife America is serious about protecting bees, not burdening the EPA, and doesn't have anything to hide, it should make public its communications."

"It is unjust that the EPA would quickly grant requests made by the pesticide industry, but delay requests made by a public interest, not-for profit organization," she added. "The EPA must stand for the interests of bees, the public, beekeepers, our food security and the environment over those of the pesticide industry."

These values, of course, are what EPA representatives continue to say are the agency's top priorities. Whether their words have weight, however, remains in dispute.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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