WSJ on Atrazine - The War on a Weed Killer

Monday, May 3, 2010
The EPA opens a re-re-evaulation of a safe chemical.
From the Wall Street Journal

With the headlines full of oil spills and immigration, the Obama Administration's regulatory agenda is getting little attention. That's a mistake. Consider the Environmental Protection Agency's effort to revive an assault on atrazine, one of the oldest, most well-established agricultural chemicals on the market. Just this past week, the EPA held its third "re-evaluation" hearing on atrazine.

Atrazine is the nation's second-most common herbicide. For 50 years it has been the farm industry's primary crop protector. In the U.S., the weed killer is used in the production of 60% of corn, 75% of sorghum and 90% of sugarcane.

Since atrazine's debut in 1959, 10 Administrations have endorsed its use. The EPA in 2006 completed a 12-year review involving 6,000 studies and 80,000 public comments. In re-registering the product, the agency concluded the cumulative risks posed "no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infant, children or other . . . consumers." The World Health Organization has found no health concerns.

None of this has stopped the most politicized environmental groups, which oppose both chemicals and the idea of industrial farming itself. Organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have spent years ginning up claims that atrazine in groundwater causes cancer, birth defects and other maladies. Manufacturers such as Syngenta have been required to conduct millions of dollars worth of studies investigating these alarmist claims. EPA staff routinely review the studies in atrazine's favor.

But now the Obama Administration has begun to fill such agencies with hires who are either sympathetic to, or even hail from, these activist groups. Consider the EPA's new head for toxic substances, Stephen Owens. As director of Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality, he so aggressively imposed an activist's climate agenda that the state legislature voted to strip his department of authority to enact greenhouse gas rules.

In August, the NRDC and the Pesticide Action Network began a new campaign against atrazine. In October, the EPA announced it would begin a re-re-evaluation of atrazine with a series of scientific panel meeting, and those are underway. The goal seems to be to lay the groundwork to ban atrazine.
Among the environmental lobby's new lines of attack is that some U.S. water systems occasionally show "spikes" in the chemical. This ignores that the EPA's drinking water standard for atrazine—three parts per billion—has a built-in, 1,000-fold safety factor. It ignores EPA findings that atrazine isn't likely to be carcinogenic to humans.

Also re-energized by the EPA's sudden interest in atrazine is, you guessed it, the plaintiffs bar. Tort kingpin Stephen Tillery, joined by Baron & Budd, filed a class action in 2004 against atrazine makers in tort-friendly Madison County, Illinois, but they've struggled even there. The EPA's re-re-evaluation is already helping the lawyers sign up more water-district plaintiffs—Mr. Tillery has filed a new federal class action—and it surely will provide ammunition in court.

There is an agenda here far more ambitious than getting one chemical. The environmental lobby wants more farmland retired to "nature," and one way to do that is to make farming more expensive. The EPA notes that eliminating atrazine would cost $2 billion annually in lost crop yields and substituting more expensive herbicides. Some farmers would go out of business or ask the federal government for more subsidies.

The environmental lobby also figures that if it can take down atrazine with its long record of clean health, it can get the EPA to prohibit anything. Sounds plausible. Between this and its determination to regulate greenhouse gases, the Obama EPA is proving itself a regulatory fundamentalist, with scant regard for good science or economics.


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