The EPA will propose changes to Obama administration rules to protect farmworkers and applicators from pesticides next week, in what is expected to be an arduous task for the agency.
The move could also stall passage of critical legislation to keep one office afloat.
The agency announced Dec. 14 that it would begin revising certain requirements in the Worker Protection Standard, a 2015 rule that updated standards for reducing pesticide exposure to nearly 2 million farmworkers nationwide, and a January 2017 rule to certify the applicators of the most restricted-use pesticides.
Although the implementation dates for the rules won’t change, the move invites industry to lobby for changes in regulations that took years to negotiate.
The announcement also could place the agency in a difficult position.
The Office of Pesticide Programs is eager for Congress to reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, a bill that allows the office to collect industry fees to complete pesticide registrations and other work.
But Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has placed a hold on the legislation (H.R. 1029) in the Senate since July, stating that he will lift his hold when the EPA commits to fully implementing the farmworker rules.
“The EPA is saying that they won’t revoke these rules while they consider revoking them,” Udall told Bloomberg Environment in an emailed statement. “That isn’t comforting, and it doesn’t resolve my concerns.”
“I haven’t yet heard a reasonable answer to my requests from the EPA. They have told me repeatedly that they don’t have the resources to carry out essential functions,” Udall added. “Yet at the same time, they have chosen to undergo an expensive and labor-intensive rewriting of crucial aspects of these worker protection rules.”
Changes ‘Puts Children at Risk’
By the end of fiscal year 2018, the agency will request comments from the public on three aspects of the rule—the minimum age of 18 to apply pesticides, the allowance for a “designated representative” to obtain pesticide use information on a farmworker’s behalf, and buffer zones around pesticide-spraying equipment meant to shield farmers from chemicals.
The EPA will solicit comments by the end of FY 2018 to change the minimum age requirement of 18 for the certification and training rule, which covers applicators for the most restricted types of pesticides. The implementation dates for the Jan. 4, 2017, rule will remain unchanged.
Andrea Delgado, legislative director for the advocacy organization Earthjustice, slammed the announcement as an attempt to weaken important farmworker protections.
“Gutting the basic safeguards provided by these two rules will deny farm workers the right to access pesticide information via a farm worker representative and put children at risk of pesticide misuse, injury, illness, and death,” Delgado said in a statement. “Whether it’s in Congress or in the courtroom, we’ll defend these crucial protections every step of the way.”
‘It Is Kind of Discouraging’
The top EPA career official for worker safety in the Office of Pesticide Programs expressed frustration last month that the Trump administration was considering re-opening the rules for examination.
“I thought we reached a good position in both regulations, so it is kind of discouraging to have it still second-guessed at this stage,” Kevin Keaney, branch chief of the Certification and Worker Protection Branch, told an EPA advisory committee Nov. 30.
“We’re in a new environment,” Keaney added. He was not authorized to comment to Bloomberg Environment on the Dec. 14 announcement.
Earlier this year, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture petitioned the EPA to extend the compliance date for the Worker Protection Standard from Jan. 1, 2017, to at least February 2018. The EPA granted its request, saying it would extend the date “until the necessary guidance and training have been completed.”
Charlotte Bertrand, acting principal deputy assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told NASDA Dec. 13 that the implementation date for the rule would not be delayed beyond Jan. 2, 2018, but that the EPA would reconsider certain aspects of the rule in response to concerns that came out of President Donald Trump’s Feb. 24 executive order on regulatory reduction.
The agricultural pesticide trade association CropLife America met with Udall for months to convince him to lift his hold on the legislation.
Although the existing authorization is being extended through the current resolution to fund the federal government that expires Dec. 22, the industry is eager to pass the bill, which would keep the Office of Pesticides Programs afloat for three years. About one-third of the office’s work is funded by Pesticide Registration Improvement Act fees.
CropLife America didn’t respond to a request for comment.