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Court Rules EPA Ignored Scientists When It Reversed Chemical Ban

MANTECA (CBS13/AP) — An appeals court reversed a decision by the Trump administration to undo a chemical ban, saying the public's health was endangered by the move.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt violated federal law by ignoring EPA scientists' conclusions on the harmful effects of Chlorpyrifos.

For many years, David Phippen has relied on Chlorpyrifos, a popular pesticide to help control pests.  It's one of the products many farmers trust to keep crops healthy.

ALSO: Dangerous Pesticides Prompt Fight Against Illegal Pot Grows

"It was a really necessary tool, we used it sparingly and we used it with an abundance of caution. It was a harsher chemical and that is why we didn't use it readily or often," said Phippen, Travaille, and Phippen, Inc.

Now many farmers in California are being forced to replace the chemical.  The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is ordering the Trump administration to ban the pesticide.

"If we would have the leaf foot plant buck attack this orchard, I wouldn't have a really effective tool in the toolbox to go after that plant bug, so what that plant bug does if it were to appear here, it destroys the almond, it stings, through the shell and all the way into the kernel," said Phippen.

Environmentalists applaud the move. They have been pushing for the ban since 2007 claiming the chemical causes damage to the nervous systems of farm workers and can even impact consumers.

A coalition of farmworkers and environmental groups sued last year after then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt reversed an Obama-era effort to ban chlorpyrifos, which is widely sprayed on citrus fruit, apples and other crops. The attorneys general for several states joined the case against EPA, including California, New York and Massachusetts.

ALSO: Strawberries Have Highest Amount of Pesticide Residue According to Report

In a split decision, the court said Thursday that Pruitt, a Republican forced to resign earlier this summer amid ethics scandals, violated federal law by ignoring the conclusions of agency scientists that chlorpyrifos is harmful.

"The panel held that there was no justification for the EPA's decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children," Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote in the court's opinion.

"There are so many safeguards in place and we support those safeguards and that is to protect the families that work in the fields, the farmers and their employees, it's to protect those families and it's to protect the families that live around these operations, those safeguards are already in place," said Bruce Blodgett, executive director, San Joaquin Farm Bureau.

Chlorpyrifos was created by Dow Chemical Co. in the 1960s. It remains among the most widely used agricultural pesticides in the United States, with the chemical giant selling about 5 million pounds domestically each year through its subsidiary Dow AgroSciences.

Chlorpyrifos belongs to a family of organophosphate pesticides that are chemically similar to a nerve gas developed by Nazi Germany before World War II.

Phippen says the chemical is used on farmland up and down the state from apricots, cotton right down to his almonds.  Without it farmers say their crops may be harmed.

"The court decided they were better scientists than the country is a little baffling," he said.

The court made the ruling in a 2 to 1 vote.  The Environmental Protection Agency now has sixty days from now to put a ban on the pesticide.

The Associated Press reported in June 2017 that Pruitt announced his agency's reversal on chlorpyrifos just 20 days after his official schedule showed a meeting with Dow CEO Andrew Liveris. At the time, Liveris headed a White House manufacturing working group, and his company had written a $1 million check to help underwrite Trump's inaugural festivities.

Following AP's report, then-EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said that March 9, 2017, meeting on Pruitt's schedule never happened. Bowman said the two men had instead shared only a "brief introduction in passing" while attending the same industry conference at a Houston hotel and that they never discussed chlorpyrifos.

However, internal EPA emails released earlier this year following a public records lawsuit filed by The Sierra Club suggest the two men shared more than a quick handshake.

Little more than a week after the conference and before Pruitt announced his decision, the EPA chief's scheduler reached out to Liveris' executive assistant to schedule a follow-up meeting.

"Hope this email finds you well!" wrote Sydney Hupp, Pruitt's assistant, on March 20, 2017. "I am reaching out today about setting up a meeting to continue the discussion between Dow Chemical and Administrator Scott Pruitt. My apologies for the delay in getting this email into you - it has been a crazy time over here!"

Subsequent emails show Hupp and Liveris' office discussing several potential dates that the Dow CEO might come to Pruitt's office at EPA headquarters, but it is not clear from the documents whether the two men ever linked up.

Liveris announced his retirement from Dow in March of this year.
Pruitt resigned July 6 amid more than a dozen ethics investigations focused on such issues as outsized security spending, first-class flights and a sweetheart condo lease for a Capitol Hill condo linked to an energy lobbyist.

Bowman, who left EPA in May to work for GOP Sen. Joni Ernest of Iowa, declined to comment on her earlier characterization of the March 2017 interaction between Pruitt and Liveris or what "discussion" the internal email was referring to.

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