The Environmental Protection Agency will be free to approve pesticides without consulting wildlife agencies to determine if the chemical might harm plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, according to new Bush administration rules.
The streamlining by the Interior and Commerce departments represents "a more efficient approach to ensure protection of threatened and endangered species," officials with the two agencies, EPA and the Agriculture Department said in a joint statement Thursday.
It also is intended to head off future lawsuits, the officials said.
Under the Endangered Species Act, EPA has been required to consult with Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service and Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service each time it licenses a new pesticide. But that hasn't been happening for some time.
"Because of the complexity of consultations to examine the effects of pest-control products, there have been almost no consultations completed in the past decade," the officials acknowledged in their statement.
Steve Williams, the Fish and Wildlife director, said it was too complex to have to consider every possible result among the interaction of hundreds of active chemicals and 1,200 threatened and endangered species.
The two services are responsible for enforcing the endangered species law. But the new rules let EPA formally skip the consultations.
The heads of the two wildlife services will presume EPA's review work is adequate.
"The two agencies completed a scientific review of EPA's risk assessment process, and concluded it allows EPA to make accurate assessments of the likely effects of pesticides on threatened and endangered species," said Bill Hogarth, who heads the fisheries service.
But the two services still plan to review EPA's methods occasionally, just to make sure. And EPA can still ask for outside consultations if it wants to. In that case, the wildlife agencies would have final say on whether a species might be harmed by a pesticide.
By not requiring so many consultations, the officials said it was more likely the ones that matter most would get done. The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973.
CropLife America, a pesticide industry trade group, described the new rules as "a sensible approach that strengthens protections to endangered animal and plant species while maintaining access to tested and approved pesticides" used in agriculture, pest control and wildlife protection.
The rulemaking is partly in response to a successful lawsuit against EPA in Seattle by Washington Toxics Coalition, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and other groups. They argued that EPA hadn't consulted with the government's wildlife experts to gauge the risks various pesticides pose to salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
A federal judge in January temporarily banned the use of 38 pesticides near salmon streams until EPA determines whether they would harm the fish. An attempt by pesticide makers and farm groups to block the order, was rejected by the appeals court.
Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued EPA in federal court in Baltimore on similar grounds, arguing the agency hadn't properly consulted the wildlife agencies while approving a popular weedkiller, atrazine. The case is still pending.
Aaron Colangelo, an NRDC staff attorney, said the new rule benefits the pesticide industry at the expense of endangered species.
"The fact that the consultations are so complicated counsels for better protection, not lesser protection," he said. "The solution to ignoring it for decades isn't to rewrite the rule so they can continue to ignore the consultations. The solution is to start complying with the Endangered Species Act."