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House votes to ease restrictions on pesticides near waterways

CAPITOL HILL – Farmers may be happy about a pesticide-use bill that cleared the U.S. House last week, but environmental advocates aren’t.

Last Wednesday, the House voted 256-165 in favor of the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2017. The vote was largely along party lines, although 25 Democrats also voted in favor of the bill. Prince George’s County’s Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.-5) and Anthony Brown (D-Md.-4) were not among them.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio-7) explained that the bill was a response to a 2006 circuit court decision ruling that pesticide applicators must apply for an additional permit under the Clean Water Act if they are spraying near bodies of water. Gibbs argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already regulates pesticide use under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the additional permit is redundant and leaves local governments “vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.”

“Cities that need to conduct the necessary mosquito abatement should not have to do it with one hand tied behind their back,” Gibbs said. “Removing this redundant NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit is appropriate because the EPA already has full control and can handle it like they did for over 60 years.”

While supporters of the bill cited a $50 million price tag for the EPA to comply with the court ruling, opponents such as Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.-32) said jurisdictions also spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” to make water usable for human consumption, which includes filtering out pesticides and other chemicals. Napolitano said pesticide levels in waterways are frequently found to “exceed human health limits.”

“FIFRA labeling is no substitute for making sure we understand the volume of pesticide we seem to be applying to our rivers, our lakes, our streams on an annual basis,” she said. “I am very concerned about the effect these pesticides have on our rivers, our streams and especially our drinking water for our citizens.”

Her same-state colleague, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.-16), meanwhile, supports the bill, arguing that the current rule actually harms human health by making it harder for states to conduct mosquito control activities.

“No one wants to risk human health, not I, not anyone, but in my opinion this would not do so. We have Zika, we have West Nile and a whole host of (issues with) spreading of these diseases by mosquitoes, and this can help address this issue,” Costa said.

Other Democrats pointed out that if states are facing a public health threat, they can declare an emergency and worry about the permits later.

“Anybody can apply a pesticide in a public health situation. They have 30 days to file the paperwork online afterwards. It takes about five minutes,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.-4).

He added that no pesticide applicators have filed complaints with the EPA about the rule, which he argued provides added certainty for residents about when, where and how the chemicals are used.

“If they didn’t have to fill out these forms, we wouldn’t know who did it, when they did it, or what the chemical was,” DeFazio said. “I guess that’s kind of what the Republicans want.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where the same measure died last year in the face of a threatened veto by then-President Barack Obama. But with a Republican majority in that chamber and a Republican in the White House, passage seems more likely this go-around.

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