Why Congress Is Unbothered by Pesticides in Rivers, Lakes and Streams

Last Updated Jun 24, 2011 8:21 AM EDT

The Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act will allow farmers, ranchers -- and your neighbors -- to spray as much pesticide as they want near rivers, lakes and streams without having to meet pesky environmental requirements now in place. Gee, thanks, Congress!

The bill, which has quietly snaked its way through the House and now a Senate committee, has been couched by its Big Agriculture supporters as an imperative step to rescue small farmers from federal bureaucratic hell and avoid another crushing blow to the economy.

Reality, though, is a different matter. Any time someone claims a new law will "save the economy," look to see who's really going to benefit. In the case of this bill, currently known as H.R. 872, that would be pesticide makers, chemical companies and Big Ag. Oh, and golf course owners. There's a reason, after all, why Monsanto spent $1.4 million lobbying in the first quarter on H.R. 872 and other measures, according to filings provided by Opensecrets.org. The last thing pesticide makers want is a regulation that could curtail farmers' use of their products.

Aquatic plants and animals and that freshly caught trout your kid is eating for dinner don't fare quite so well in this scenario.

The breakdown: Federal law and some more paperwork

All pesticides sold in the U.S. have to be registered by the EPA. Companies like DuPont (DD) and Monsanto (MON) have to prove, among other things, that their pesticide "will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment." The EPA's definition is pretty broad, but essentially pesticide can't pose an "unreasonable" risk to humans or the environment -- like killing them instantly in small doses. You know, reasonable stuff.

The regulatory noose significantly tightened in 2009 after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that discharges from pesticides into U.S. waters were pollutants and would require a permit under the Clean Water Act.

If the bill passes, farmers, land owners, ranchers, Big Ag and pesticide companies -- all who have argued that the permit was duplicitous -- will dodge a regulatory bullet that would almost certainly reduce the use of pesticides. The Clean Water Act permits were slated to go into effect this October.

It may sound like a waste to have to get a permit to use a federally approved pesticide. But unless the EPA bans all pesticides and herbicides -- and that ain't happenin' -- there aren't many other ways to protect U.S. waterways and the plants and animals that live there. That's what started the legal battle over permitting in the first place. In 1996, the Talent Irrigation District in Oregon sprayed pesticide onto aquatic weeds in irrigation canals and inadvertently killed thousands of fish.

The whole point of the court ruling and permit requirement is to protect waterways without killing the pesticide or agriculture industries. A little duplicity here is the only reasonable option.

Photo from Flickr user jetsandzeppelins, CC 2.0

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