Circuit Court Grants Writ of Mandamus Requiring EPA to Act on Petition to Ban Chlorpyrifos
In an opinion issued on August 10, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted a writ of mandamus requested by Pesticide Action Network North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council (Petitioners) to require that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) act in response to a 2007 administrative petition to cancel the registrations of all pesticides containing chlorpyrifos. A writ of mandamus to compel administrative action is an extraordinary remedy and is generally reserved for instances of egregious delay. The same court had previously declined to grant mandamus to the same Petitioners in 2013, but has now concluded that mandamus is the only way to end a “cycle of incomplete responses, missed deadlines, and unreasonable delay.”
After the Petitioners commenced the current case, EPA issued a preliminary decision indicating that it intended to deny the petition to cancel chlorpyrifos, and told the court that it would take final action after reviewing public comments by the summer of 2015. In a status report subsequently filed in response to a June 10, 2015, order by the court, EPA changed course and stated that unresolved concerns about the risk associated with chlorpyrifos levels in some drinking water might warrant a rulemaking to revoke all existing chlorpyrifos tolerances. EPA stated that it intended to commence such a rulemaking in April, 2016, unless the registrants of chlorpyrifos products agree to make labeling changes to mitigate the risk from residues in drinking water. The Petitioners were not satisfied with this amorphous response by EPA, and the court has now agreed.
The writ of mandamus directs EPA to issue a proposed or final rule to revoke chlorpyrifos tolerances, or a full and final response to the administrative petition to cancel chlorpyrifos, no later than October 31, 2015. If EPA elects to issue a proposed revocation rule, EPA must inform the court by October 31, 2015, of the timeline for finalizing the proposed rule. Meeting this specific directive from the court will be very challenging. EPA must determine quickly whether the registrants of chlorpyrifos products will agree to label changes that EPA considers sufficient to mitigate drinking water risks. Such label changes could hypothetically obviate the need for a tolerance revocation rule and provide a basis for a final decision by EPA to deny the petition to ban chlorpyrifos. Otherwise, EPA will need to substantially accelerate its stated timetable for issuing a proposed rule to revoke chlorpyrifos tolerances.
In brief, this commitment by EPA will accelerate discussions with the registrant and user groups in an attempt to resolve the issues identified in EPA’s assessment. It appears that this will compress a process which has typically taken many months into a much tighter time frame, to comply with the court’s order. That obviously was among the goals of the plaintiffs in the case; it remains to be seen how doing so will affect the EPA’s ability to evaluate the risks and benefits of the pesticide as fully as it typically has done in the past.