States Raise Concerns On EPA Plan To Limit Bees' Pesticide Exposure

June 1, 2015

State regulators are raising early concerns about EPA's recently proposed two-part approach to reducing bees' exposure to dozens of acutely toxic pesticides, noting some states may lack resources and authority to support the pollinator protection plans that EPA is encouraging and that the mitigation they rely on may be unrealistic.

EPA May 29 proposed the two-prong approach to protecting bees from acutely toxic pesticides, a first step in the agency's plan for implementing the administration's recently announced strategy for protecting bees by improving habitat and assessing risks from stressors on bee health, including pesticides.

The agency is taking comment through June 29 on the proposal that would prohibit foliar applications, during bloom, at sites where bees are contracted for pollination, and encourage states to craft pollinator protection plans for protecting managed bees at or near other sites. EPA says the proposed prohibition at sites where bees are contracted for pollination is because pesticide exposure at these locations is "nearly certain." Relevant documents are available on (Doc. ID: 181774)

During a June 1 meeting of the State Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Issues Research and Evaluation Group (SFIREG) several state regulators raised concerns about how the plan would be implemented. Also, the advisory group finalized its guidance to help states craft pollinator protection plans, and agreed to send a letter to EPA requesting to extend the comment deadline by 60 days.

Regulators also raised early concerns about the EPA plan, noting that crafting pollinator protection plans is a resource intensive process, that the EPA plan does not address non-commercial bee hives and that some mitigation that has been discussed for the state plans may be unrealistic.

John Scott, of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said that Colorado, which has a pollinator protection plan, found crafting it a resource intensive process, for which some states may lack adequate resources and authority.

"We have concern, from a state perspective, on how we're going to do this," Scott said, adding that state regulators in the group support the ideas included in EPA's plan, although they encourage states to undertake a resource-intensive process.

Patrick Jones, of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, noted that while the state plans rely on coordination between beekeepers and applicators, some beekeepers have objected to potential mitigation measures like moving or covering hives. EPA intends to rely on state plans to reduce bees' exposures to pesticides at sites where bees are not under contract for pollination.

To address the resource concern, EPA staff told regulators that President Obama's fiscal year 2016 budget proposal includes $500,000 to support state pollinator protection plans, though they acknowledged that Congress may not appropriate that amount.

EPA is currently seeking comment on its two-prong approach, and has defended its plan to rely on the primarily voluntary state plans, noting that they take into account regional variation in agriculture. Environmentalists have argued that relying on states is inadequate, in part because protections will vary by state plans and because the plans may rely on unrealistic mitigation.

The "Proposal to Mitigate Exposure to Bees from Acutely Toxic Pesticide Products," announced in a May 29 Federal Register notice, is the first step EPA has taken to protect bees since the May 19 release of a broad federal strategy for improving pollinator health through steps including accelerating some pesticide reviews and supporting state efforts to protect bees.

The strategy implements President Obama's June 20 memo on stemming the pollinator declines seen since 2006 by improving their habitat, assessing risks from pesticides and other stressors to bee health, and acting where appropriate.

The plan to prohibit foliar applications at sites where bees are contracted for pollination would apply to all products applied as liquid or dust that have been determined toxic to bees on contact "with an acutely lethal dose to 50% of the bees tested (abbreviated LD50) of less than 11 micrograms per bee."

EPA notes that beekeepers reported adverse effects from exposure to acutely toxic pesticides to thousands of bee colonies used for pollinating almonds and blueberries in 2014, and that it has heard claims of potentially tens of thousands more affected colonies. EPA says in some cases it is unclear whether the adverse effects resulted from acute or chronic exposures since the incidents have not been formally reported to EPA or states. But the agency says exposures at sites where bees are pollinating crops are "nearly certain" and so the prohibition is warranted.

To address risks from acute exposures to pesticides used at other sites, EPA proposes relying on the state plans that have either been developed or are under development in dozens states and that seek to reduce risks to bees by improving communication between beekeepers and applicators through primarily voluntary measures.

EPA says it will encourage development of state plans and monitor their success. If the plans fail to reduce pesticide exposures within several years, EPA says additional restrictions may be necessary.

EPA's proposal also acknowledges some pesticides may pose sublethal effects to bees through systemic properties, meaning the poison is taken up into plants' pollen and nectar.

But EPA says it will continue to study and address those potential risks on case-by-case basis through its registration review of pesticides under the pesticide law.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) are backing the proposed ban on certain applications, but arguing that the proposal does not go far enough to protect bees from systemic pesticides, such as the controversial neonicotinoid class, which are often applied as seed treatments.

"More than 100 million U.S. acres are planted with seeds drenched in bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides," CBD says in a statement. "To save America's pollinators, the EPA needs to take the next step and immediately ban neonicotinoids, especially these poison seeds."

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