Three commonly used pesticides pose a serious threat, even when used as recommended, to the survival of endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River Basin and other marine life along the West Coast, according to a report by scientists with the federal government.
The 3,400-page report, also called a biological opinion, was written by the National Marine Fisheries Service for the Environmental Protection Agency. Scientists focused on the toxic effects of the organophosphate pesticides chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion on salmon and steelhead, as well as a host of other aquatic animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Their research found the impacts on salmon and steelhead are so great that they jeopardize their survival and the recovery of those endangered species. According to the report, southern resident killer whales are also at risk because they depend on salmon as a food source.
Diazinon is used on fruit trees, corn, potatoes and decorative plants.
Malathion is used on more than 100 crops, but the bulk is applied to alfalfa, wheat, rice and cotton.
Chlorpyrifos is commonly used in a variety of settings from golf courses to Christmas tree farms and orchards. A growing body of research suggests chlorpyrifos is harmful to the development of children’s brains.
EPA declines a ban
In 2015, the EPA said it could no longer support the safe of use of chlorpyrifos on foods. But last year the agency declined to ban it outright.
The report was made public by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization that wants to see the chemicals strictly regulated, if not banned outright.
Patti Goldman, Northwest managing attorney for Earthjustice, described the report as a “robust” and “thorough” body of work, but said it’s up to the EPA to use it as guidance to protect endangered salmon.
“We really want protection on the ground, that’s the next step,” she said. “I don’t think there was a question of these pesticides causing harm to salmon. They cause physical changes in the salmon, they can’t smell and they inhibit their ability to evade predators.”
The biological opinion lists multiple alternatives for the EPA to keep the pesticides out of fish habitat. The options include banning the pesticides, prohibiting their use in locations where they’re likely to run off into or drift into fish habitat, requiring significant buffers where they are applied, or requiring pesticide users to use a kind of point system based on their drift or runoff reduction measures.
The report is the latest product of a protracted legal battle waged over West Coast salmon by Earthjustice and its clients, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources.
Through a series of lawsuits, the first of which began more than 15 years ago, Earthjustice has put pressure on the EPA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether EPA’s pesticide registrations are affecting endangered species.
The group claims the federal government is putting thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at risk by failing to protect and restore salmon and steelhead runs in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California.
Pushing for action
Now that the opinion has been released, the groups behind the lawsuits want the EPA to act.
“I’m very, very curious how the EPA is going to actually take these recommendations and do something. Right now the ball is in their court,” said Sharon Selvaggio, of Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.
Academics watching the situation say the issue goes beyond the potential unintended harms of pesticides and raises questions about how closely the country and the government will follow science when trying to remedy thorny environmental issues.
“Some of our environmental problems are big and difficult, and data from many scientific studies indicates that we will need to make some big and hard decisions to fix them,” said Edward P. Kolodziej, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.
“These won’t be easy or popular in many cases, some of these solutions will require significant change, and it’s an open question as to whether people will value data driven approaches to environmental management when a big change is involved.”