Acting Secretary of Interior Shelves Study of Impact of Pesticides on Endangered Species

San Joaquin Kit Fox – one of the impacted endangered species     Photo: Mark A. Chappell

According to The New York Times, David Bernhardt, who has been nominated to be the Secretary of Interior, personally intervened to squash the planned public release in 2017 of a thorough report that was years in the making on the negative impacts of three major pesticides on endangered species.  Based on documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and The New York Times, it appears that the scientists conducting the review were about to conclude that the use of these pesticides at approved levels could cause the extinction of 1,200 species of plants and animals.  This conclusion would possibly have led to tighter restrictions on the use of these dangerous pesticides, a result their manufacturers were trying hard to avoid, but it would not have led to a total ban of them.  

  • The Act requires the Interior Department’s biologists to determine the impact of the use of pesticides that are approved by EPA — under what is known as a “Section 7” consultation.  If they find that the use of the pesticide at its permissible levels will jeopardize the continued existence of certain endangered species, then EPA would discuss with Interior what to do to ensure that such species survive.
  • The most important chemicals involved in the review are chlorpyrifos, which is used on dozens of fruits and vegetables and made by Dow AgroChemical, and malathion, which made by FMC Corporation and is used against mosquitoes as well as chewing and sucking insects that attack a range of crops including tomatoes, strawberries and walnuts.  EPA is currently under a court order to ban the use of chlorpyrifos because of the harm its use on food products allegedly causes to humans, but the case is on appeal.  
  • The documents show that industry officials had easy and repeated access to Interior Department officials during the process, including Mr. Bernhardt, who led the effort to send the report back for a re-evaluation using much narrower criteria.  These meetings included a former pesticide industry official now working in the Administration, and some were held at the White House.

The lead career employee at the Interior Department who oversaw the study said he was not troubled by the decision by the leadership there “’It was an entirely appropriate role,” he said in an interview with The Times, as two of the agency’s public affairs officials listened in. “There was no arm-twisting of any kind.’”

Why This Matters:  This kind of politicization of science is why Senator Schatz and Congressman Tanko’s bill on sound science in the government is so important.  It is understandable that agency’s political appointees would meet with industry representatives about an important issue — in my (Monica) time, we met with lots of representatives of stakeholders when a decision was pending at my agency.  What is NOT appropriate is changing the decision that had been based on the best judgment of agency scientists and holding secret meetings with the representatives of only one side of an issue.  In my time in government, we set up formal and informal meeting at appropriate times during a decision process to give all sides a chance to be heard, and we did it on the record so the public would know.  Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing is Thursday – he should explain why he shelved the report and make the prior version public.

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