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As Deadlines Quietly Change, EPA's Backlog Grows

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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EPA missed eight deadlines on its registration review of neonicotinoid chemicals in 2016, leaving farmer and industry use of the chemicals in an uncomfortable waiting pattern. (DTN file photo)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Well that's one way to stay on schedule.

Somewhere between early December and the New Year, a little elf snuck into the EPA's "Schedule for Review of Neonicotinoid Pesticides" and changed eight deadlines from 2016 to 2017.

It's a minor tweak that speaks volumes about a backlogged agency quietly slipping further and further behind schedule.

Last year, Marty Monell, the outgoing deputy director of EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) confessed that the agency struggles more and more every year to hit deadlines. At a conference hosted by CropLife America in April, she spoke of a shrinking budget, Congressional hostility, and at least 16 active lawsuits tying up the agency's time and resources.

Between 2012 and 2013, the EPA's budget tumbled 12% and it lost 16% of its full-time employees, Monell said. At the same time, faced with growing public concern over the decline in honeybee health, the agency added pollinator safety reviews to its regular pesticide re-evaluation process, adding reams of data and new reports to the agency's growing backlog of pesticide reviews.

Monell estimated that the average time frame to register a new active ingredient has jumped 30% from 703 days in 2011 to 917 days in 2015. She did not mention the timelines for reviewing old chemicals, like neonicotinoids, but the agency has now missed multiple deadlines on this group of pesticides.

This class of chemicals is used to control insects in a range of agricultural industries, from row crops like corn, soybeans and cotton to horticultural crops. Perhaps most prominently, neonicotinoids are used in insecticide coatings placed on seed before planting, which have become ubiquitous in the corn and soybean industry. Some studies have implicated neonicotinoids in the decline in honeybee health, and research is ongoing.

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That means the EPA is under special pressure in its decisions on neonicotinoids' future registration. Environmentalists want the chemicals banned, outright. Chemical and seed companies would prefer the registrations remain untouched, as seed treatments have become a major part of their crop protection product line.

So far EPA has released documents on only one chemical, imidacloprid, the active ingredient in Bayer Crop Sciences' Gaucho insecticide. In this document, a preliminary pollinator ecological risk assessment, the agency concluded that bees are most at risk of exposure to damaging levels of the imidacloprid from foliar and seed treatments in cotton fields and foliar applications in citrus fields.

Since then, silence has reigned, and the chemical's initial final registration decision, originally scheduled for 2014, remains a mystery.

The situation doesn't bode well for the other chemicals clothianidin (Poncho), thiamethoxam (Cruiser), and dinotefuran, which had final decisions originally scheduled for 2018.

In the meantime, public scrutiny of neonicotinoids has only heightened. Canada has been imposing more and more severe restrictions on the chemicals for two years.

City officials in Vancouver and Montreal have voted to ban them over the past two years, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have taken steps to phase them out gradually, with Ontario aiming to reduce use by 80% from 2015 to 2017.

Most recently, Health Canada (Canada's version of the EPA) released a draft risk assessment of imidacloprid (Gaucho) and proposed phasing out all agricultural uses of it in the country over the next three to five years, due to concerns over its effects on aquatic insects. (Bayer CropSciences has publically objected to the agency's conclusions and phase-out plan, and the assessment is up for a 90-day comment period.) Health Canada is now also turning its attention to clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Whether these moves up North will influence the EPA remains uncertain, but already some U.S. states are taking notice. In Maryland, a state law will go into effect in 2018 banning all consumer uses of neonicotinoids, with exceptions for agricultural and veterinary uses.

In August of 2016, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton laid out a set of proposed rules instructing the state's department of agriculture to prompt new laws allowing them to regulate neonicotinoid-treated seed and then impose a series of restrictions on when and how often Minnesota farmers can use them. (See the DTN story here: http://bit.ly/…).

That ambitious plan will take a serious legislative effort to get underway, so Minnesota farmers aren't likely to see changes this season. But with the increasing controversy around these chemicals and the flurry of local and international laws aimed at them, American farmers need a firm statement from EPA on their future registration now more than ever.

When will that come? Well, in 2017, according to EPA. But keep an eye on that schedule -- http://bit.ly/… -- it's been known to change.

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/AG)

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