Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing a challenge from seven states over his decision to ditch an EPA proposal that would have prevented a pesticide linked to brain damage in children from contaminating the food supply.
On Tuesday, a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general filed an administrative challenge to Pruitt's March 27 order denying a decade-old petition to ban chlorpyrifos, a controversial bug killer used to control pests on food crops such as apples, strawberries and oranges, as well as at facilities such as golf courses.
The order quashed an agency proposal rolled out under the Obama administration to ban chlorpyrifos on food products due to health risks. Pruitt issued the order at the last minute to meet a court-ordered deadline requiring the EPA to make a final decision on the ban after years of review.
Environmental groups have long fought to restrict the use of chlorpyrifos and other controversial pesticides and filed lawsuits against the Obama administration for dragging its feet on reforms. The filing from the seven attorneys general suggests that leading Democrats are now eager to challenge Pruitt's EPA on pesticide regulation and cast the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda as an attack on public health protections that voters would not want to lose.
"The EPA's first job is ensuring the health and safety of New Yorkers and all Americans -- especially our children," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement on Tuesday. "Yet the Trump administration is jeopardizing our children's health by allowing continued exposure to this toxic pesticide at levels it has not found to be safe."
The attorneys general of Vermont, Maine, California, Washington, Maryland and Massachusetts joined Schneiderman in urging the EPA to avoid further delay in banning chlorpyrifos. Pruitt's order, they argue, violates a federal law that requires the EPA to keep pesticides off of food products if the agency is unable to determine what levels of exposure are safe for the public.
In addition to the challenge from the attorneys general, environmental and labor groups submitted 140,000 public comments opposing Pruitt's decision to keep chlorpyrifos on the market before the comment period closed this week.
The EPA banned the use of chlorpyrifos inside homes in 2000 due to concerns that the chemical could cause brain damage in children. Environmental groups petitioned the EPA to ban the chemical completely back in 2007 and later filed a lawsuit to force the agency into action.
EPA scientific reviews in 2014 and 2016 showed the chemical posed a risk to human health when present on food or in drinking water, and the EPA proposed banning chlorpyrifos residues on food products in 2015 and again last November.
Currently, the EPA's own website acknowledges that its 2016 review found that the levels of chlorpyrifos typically found on food and in drinking water exceed federal safety standards. The EPA also says the pesticide can harm wildlife, and the agency is working to evaluate its impacts on endangered species.
A trio of studies released in 2011 and reviewed by the EPA found a connection between prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate whose chemical ancestors include deadly nerve agents developed during World War II, and diminished IQs in children. Organophosphate pesticides have also been linked to learning delays and ADHD, and the EPA has already placed certain restrictions on using the chemicals at farms and orchards.
Environmental and labor groups have also raised concerns about the effects chlorpyrifos can have on farm workers, particularly migrant farm workers, as well as children and families living in agricultural areas. Last month, more than 50 farmworkers in California fell ill after being exposed to a drifting cloud of chlorpyrifos.
"There's a good reason this dangerous toxin has been banned from indoor use for more than a decade and the EPA's own scientists recommended ending its use on food," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "There is no question that this pesticide causes serious harm to people and wildlife so there should be no question that it should be banned, period."
Environmentalists and even the EPA's own scientists agree that chlorpyrifos should be removed from the food supply, but apparently Pruitt is not convinced. Under Pruitt's March 27 order, the agency says it will continue to "review the science" on the chemical's ability to damage the brain and complete another assessment by a statutory deadline in 2022.
Unsurprisingly, the agrichemical industry says the chemical is safe and disputes the EPA's earlier findings. In 2015, a powerful lobbying group for the industry asked the EPA to disregard the studies linking chlorpyrifos to brain problems in kids. Earlier this year, Dow Chemical, a main proprietor of the chemical, sent letters to Pruitt and other Trump administration officials asking them to withdraw recent EPA evaluations that determined that chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates can harm endangered species of animals and plants.
In both cases, the industry attempted to poke holes in the science behind the EPA's conclusions, arguing that supporting data and research did not include the industry's own findings and is either flawed or was not properly vetted by agency scientists.
The press release announcing Pruitt's order denying the petition to ban the pesticide called into question "the methodology used by the previous administration" and cites a lack of "reliable data" in the very studies that environmentalists and the agency's own scientists say provide evidence that children should not be eating food or drinking water contaminated by chlorpyrifos.
Environmentalists point out that Dow Chemical is one of three companies that donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration activities back in January.
"The Trump administration is putting our children and our most endangered wildlife at risk simply to pay off a political debt to Dow," said Hartl.
Pruitt's sympathy for the agrichemical should not come as a surprise: Chlorpyrifos is a popular pesticide, and Pruitt has an extensive record of working with polluters to challenge environmental regulations as the former attorney general of Oklahoma.
In their administrative challenge, Schneiderman and the other Democratic attorneys general argue that the EPA has not determined a level of chlorpyrifos residue on food that is safe for human consumption, so federal law prohibits the EPA from approving the chemical for continued use.
A spokesman for the EPA told Truthout that the agency is reviewing the administrative challenge.
If the agency fails to instate new restrictions to keep chlorpyrifos off of food, the attorneys general could follow up with a lawsuit. A high-profile court challenge would keep the issue in the headlines for months, if not years, providing Democrats running in the midterms with ammunition to paint the GOP as a party that values private profits over public health.
Environmental groups have already filed their own lawsuit challenging Pruitt's decision to keep chlorpyrifos on the market. Environmentalists are also using legal action to push the EPA to study the impacts that pesticides have on endangered species.