Bay Crossings Article

Congress Considers Exempting Pesticides from Clean Water Act

Deb Self, Executive Director
From the June 2011 edition of Bay Crossings

Much of Baykeeper’s work focuses on strengthening or maintaining clean water laws and regulations related to toxic pollutants and other contaminants capable of compromising the health of San Francisco Bay. We do this work by engaging in policy and regulatory processes, as well as conducting outreach, research and education. When necessary, we litigate on behalf of clean water and the laws intended to protect it.

Since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, scientists have identified a number of pollutants considered harmful and worthy of strategies intended to reduce their presence in the Bay. One of the top priorities in the Bay Area is pesticides (including the class of alternative structural pesticides called pyrethroids, which are based on chrysanthemums). Pesticides are, by their very nature, toxic to aquatic life and often travel up the food chain to mammals through contamination of food and drinking water.

This month’s Baykeeper column is a rare request for my fellow ferry commuters to join me in taking timely action to keep pesticides regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

There’s a major roll back afoot in Congress, with the recent passage of a bill in the House of Representatives and a companion bill making its way quickly through the Senate.Baykeeper needs your help to stop the Senate bill before irreparable harm is done – to a bedrock pollution law and to our Bay Area waterways. These bills would exempt a whole class of chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) from the Clean Water Act and open the door to exemptions for other toxic pollutants.

Across the Bay Area, public agencies routinely apply pesticides directly to or near hundreds of miles of Bay tributaries—as a labor-saving way to keep down roadside vegetation and to control aquatic vegetation and pests. For example, along Hwy 1 in Sonoma County, a brown swath of sprayed vegetation borders the highway—and Bay tributaries—for miles. Unfortunately, this has dramatically impaired the health of all of the Bay’s tributary creeks, harming frogs, fish and birds that depend on the aquatic food chain.

Until recently, spraying of these pesticides near and into water was largely unregulated. Only after years of pressure (and a few lawsuits) from Baykeeper did California become one of the first states to ensure that this spraying did not compromise water quality.

On January 7, 2009, Baykeeper won what looked like a permanent legal victory in the fight to protect creeks, rivers, fish and other wildlife from pesticide spraying. In a landmark decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit confirmed that pesticides are indeed pollutants when applied to waterways. The court sided with Baykeeper and ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not exempt pesticides from the Clean Water Act.

Following the ruling, the New York Times reported in February 2010 that CropLife said it would work to contain the court’s ruling. With a shift in Congress after the November elections, industry trade groups like CropLife and the American Farm Bureau felt like they had a sympathetic audience, particularly in farm-state representatives, and set about dismantling federal law that required regulation of pesticides.

A bill to exempt pesticides flew through the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate is now considering companion legislation that would overturn key protections against spraying harmful pesticides in waterways and essentially exempt pesticides from the Clean Water Act—an unprecedented move that would cause irreparable harm to our waterways and open the door to exemptions for all manner of toxic pollutants.

It is critical that we help the Senate hold the line against the chemical and agricultural industries’ efforts to undermine Clean Water Act protections. At the time of this writing, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is poised to vote on S. 718. If it passes committee, we believe it stands a good chance of passing on the Senate Floor. Please join me in urging Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chair of the Agriculture Committee, to put a stop to the bill. You can check the status of the bill and take action on our website, 250 people have sent messages to Sen. Stabenow so far, and I hope at least 100 ferry commuters will join the refrain: No exemptions to the Clean Water Act!