Groups Reach Agreement with EPA on Use of Controversial Pesticide

Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (known by their Spanish initials PCUN) and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) reached an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concerning future uses of vinclozolin, a fungicide used widely in Oregon on snap beans.

The groups challenged the use of the pesticide on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The challenges led to a phase out of most uses of vinclozolin. Under the agreement, EPA must give PCUN and the coalition notice of any proposed use and respond to any issues the groups raise before considering future requests to use this pesticide.

In 1997, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (PCUN) and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) learned that agricultural representatives were requesting an emergency exemption to use vinclozolin for the 15th consecutive year, despite a five-year regulatory maximum for such exemptions. The manufacturer, upon learning of the pending opposition to the exemption, then applied to register the pesticide for use on snap beans.

Soon after, the EPA authorized the use of vinclozolin on snap beans without determining how much of the pesticide could legally remain on beans bound for people's dinner tables. Permitting this use without establishing legal residue limits violates federal law, the environmental and worker rights groups claim.

PCUN and NCAP filed an action in federal court to immediately halt the use of vinclozolin until the residue level was established. Four days after the court filing, EPA issued what it declared to be a safe level.

Over the next three years, PCUN and three environmental groups - the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Working Group - challenged EPA's authorization of vinclozolin use on snap beans. The groups challenged the registration on the grounds that the scientific literature showed that the residues that remain on food would negatively impact human health. They also held that the EPA had failed to comply with the food safety requirements of the new Food Quality Protection Act. As a result of these actions, vinclozolin tolerances for many different uses were withdrawn. When the remaining vinclozolin uses still led to unsafe levels on food, EPA and the manufacturer negotiated a phase-out of food uses of vinclozolin that will eliminate uses on snap beans and other foods by the end of 2004.

"EPA had flouted the law and the health of farm workers and consumers exposed to vinclozolin by allowing its use on numerous fruits and vegetables," says Patti Goldman, senior attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle. "Our appeals spurred EPA to crack down on this pesticide, and this agreement ensures that EPA will not secretly reinstate the cancelled uses."

Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, says the agreement is designed to provide more information to farm workers who are exposed to the pesticide. "Our hope is that these procedures will permanently stop the regulatory abuses that spanned 14 years and got us involved in this issue in the first place," he adds.

Although EPA announced a multi-year phase out of the pesticide, the workers' groups claim the agency indicated to agricultural industry representatives that it will leave open the opportunity to apply for an emergency exemption once the phase out has occurred in order to continue vinclozolin's use on snap beans. Under the agreement, conservation and farmworker groups will be notified by EPA before an emergency exemption is even considered.

"When pesticides are sprayed directly on food, some of the chemical inevitably ends up where we don't want it, including on the food that we all eat," comments Norma Grier, executive director of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). "By having a more transparent process, we can do a better job of protecting the health of both farm workers and consumers."

At a meeting with stakeholders, however, EPA indicated that growers and states could reinstate the cancelled uses to deal with emergency situations. Fearful that cancelled uses of vinclozolin would re-emerge through requests for exemptions, PUCN and the Coalition pressed for prior notice of exemptions and asked if EPA would consider their objections before acting on any such requests.

The agreement can be viewed on NCAP's Web site at www.pesticide.org.

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