WASHINGTON— The National Marine Fisheries Service released a revised draft biological opinion today finding that three widely used insecticides — chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion — jeopardize the continued existence of dozens of endangered marine species, including salmon and Puget Sound orcas.
Today’s analysis echoes a previous biological opinion on the three pesticides released by the Fisheries Service in 2017. That opinion was disavowed by Trump political appointees, forcing the agency to redo its analysis.
In the five years since the 2017 analysis, the Environmental Protection Agency has continued to allow unchecked use of the three pesticides in the habitat of endangered plants and animals, despite its knowledge that these chemicals pose an extinction-level threat to many protected species.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service should be commended for following the science and confirming that these three toxic poisons are lethal for salmon and are pushing Puget Sound orcas closer to extinction,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Despite enormous pressure during the Trump administration, the Fisheries Service maintained scientific integrity and showed real courage in not bending to the will of the pesticide industry.”
The draft biological opinion concludes that chlorpyrifos and malathion jeopardize the continued existence of 37 endangered species and adversely modify the designated critical habitat of 36. It also finds that diazinon jeopardizes the continued existence of 26 endangered species and adversely modifies the designated critical habitat of 18.
The next step will be for the Fisheries Service to receive public comments and transmit its analysis to the EPA for implementation.
The Trump administration agreed to the pesticide industry’s demands that biological opinions must consider “usage data” — data widely considered to be incomplete and unreliable — in determining harm to endangered species.
After requiring countless staffers at the Fisheries Service, EPA, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review and assess usage data, the Fisheries Service explained in its opinion that “Usage data (data on past use) are not available at a useful scale to predict exposure to the threatened and endangered species” and that “NMFS concluded that usage data is not sufficient to represent the extent of pesticide use that will occur over the 15-yr period of the action, particularly given NMFS’ need to insure the action doesn’t jeopardize the species or adversely modify the habitat.”
The agency’s conclusion is supported by the fact that pesticide usage data is only collected at the state level and that existing federal law prohibits finer-scale collection of such data based on privacy concerns.
In contrast to the Fisheries Service’s scientific conclusions regarding usage data, its sister agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, continues to follow the industry-requested directives first set forth during the Trump administration.
For example, in a draft biological opinion on these three chemicals released in April, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined malathion would jeopardize only 78 of the more than 1,700 endangered species under its jurisdiction. That finding contrasts with an earlier draft conclusion — reached prior to the Trump administration’s intervention — finding that 1,284 species would be jeopardized by the pesticide.
In the coming days the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a final biological opinion according to the terms of a legal agreement with the Center.
“As we commend the National Marine Fisheries Service for its excellent analysis of these pesticides’ impacts, we must also condemn the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has all but given up on trying to protect endangered species from these very same pesticides in these very same places,” said Burd. “We’ll continue to fight to protect scientific integrity and these critical biological opinions that provide a lifeline to orcas and salmon alike.”
As part of a legal agreement, the Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to issue a biological opinion by the end of 2017 identifying ways to safeguard endangered species from chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
In January 2017 the EPA completed its part of that process when it issued a biological evaluation determining that nearly all federally protected species are likely harmed by chlorpyrifos and malathion. It also found that more than three-quarters of all endangered species are likely to be harmed by diazinon.
The World Health Organization has found that malathion and diazinon are “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Following the EPA’s announcement, officials at Dow AgroSciences asked the Trump administration to suspend the assessments.
In May 2017 the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that after nearly four years of work, its draft biological opinion assessing the pesticides’ harms was nearly complete and would be ready for public comment within months. As career staffers at the Service were preparing to make the biological opinion available for public comment, they briefed Trump's political appointees, including then-acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, on the results of the agency’s rigorous scientific review.
Following this briefing, top officials at the Department of the Interior, including Bernhardt, acted to indefinitely suspend the release of the Service’s assessment. The Trump administration’s unprecedented efforts to undermine those findings were highlighted in a New York Times investigation.
A document obtained by the Center through the Freedom of Information Act revealed the assessments were suspended after the top political appointees were briefed on the fact that the Service’s analysis had determined that chlorpyrifos jeopardized the continued existence of 1,399 protected species.