EPA Issues a Proposed Consent Decree Regarding Petition Concerning Treated Seeds and Treated Article Exemption
On July 6, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposed consent decree intended to resolve the case, Center for Food Safety, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (3:21-cv-09640-JSC), brought against EPA in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California alleging that EPA has unreasonably delayed responding to a petition for rulemaking relating to the regulatory exemption of pesticide treated seed. 87 Fed. Reg. 40233.
In accordance with EPA’s March 18, 2022, memorandum entitled “Consent Decrees and Settlement Agreements to Resolve Environmental Claims Against the Agency,” EPA issued a Federal Register notice providing the proposed consent decree to resolve Center for Food Safety, et al. v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and providing a comment period. Comments on the proposed consent decree from persons who are not named as parties to the litigation in question are due on or before August 5, 2022. The public can submit comments at www.regulations.gov in Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OGC-2022-0511.
This case was filed in connection with a petition (Petition) from the Center for Food Safety on or around April 26, 2017, requesting that EPA amend 40 C.F.R. Section 152.25(a) to exclude seeds for planting coated with systemic pesticides intended to kill pests of the plant, or, in the alternative, publish a formal agency interpretation in the Federal Register stating that 40 C.F.R. Section 152.25(a) does not apply to seeds for planting coated with systemic pesticides intended to kill pests of the plant, and enforce the numerous pesticide registration and labeling requirements for each separate crop seed product that is coated with a neonicotinoid or other systemic insecticidal chemical (2017 Petition Requests). EPA requested public comment on the 2017 Petition and received approximately 100 substantive comments. On December 14, 2021, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint alleging that EPA’s failure to respond to the Petition constitutes an unreasonable delay under Section 706(1) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. 706(1).
Under the proposed consent decree, EPA would, no later than September 30, 2022, either grant, deny, or grant in part and deny in part each of the Petition Requests. Court approval of this proposed consent decree would resolve all claims in this case except for the claim for the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorneys’ fees. EPA or the Department of Justice may withdraw or withhold consent to the proposed consent decree if the comments disclose facts or considerations that indicate that such consent is inappropriate, improper, inadequate, or inconsistent with the requirements of the APA or the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Unless EPA or the Department of Justice determines that consent should be withdrawn, the terms of the proposed consent decree will be affirmed and entered with the court.
The treated article exemption under FIFRA, as EPA has applied it over the years, has been relevant mostly to uncontroversial products such as shower curtains (the pesticide applied to such a product is intended to preserve the shower curtain and not considered using a pesticide when one uses the shower curtain). Meanwhile, the practice of coating seeds with pesticides became more controversial in recent years about possible impacts on honeybees from fugitive dust from neonicotinoid-treated crop seeds. The concern is whether such non-target movement of pesticide residues (the dust) might be partly responsible for the apparent decline in honeybee populations. Critics view EPA’s policy about treated articles as not incorporating a sufficiently robust assessment of the impacts of this pesticide use pattern — that is, the dust from the treated seeds and the systemic nature of neonicotinoid products used this way have impacts that EPA “ignores” due to the treated article exemption.
Interestingly, any residues remaining in the food produced using such products still must meet the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) safety standard of “reasonable certainty of no harm” from consuming the food — but critics view the neonicotinoid products as causing unreasonable environmental impacts — even if the finished food product is safe. In this view, critics of the current treated article exemption definition argue that the environmental impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides are left insufficiently regulated. One problem EPA faces, however, is that the treated article exemption applies to a much larger universe of pesticide applications than seed treatments, so changes to better evaluate the environmental impact of neonicotinoids could impact other products currently not viewed as controversial. This partly explains why EPA has delayed its response to the Petition as it considers how to respond. Changes to the current policy could result in many more products or applications needing EPA review, which would expand the pesticide registration universe at a time when EPA struggles to meet evaluation deadlines for currently registered products. EPA now will have to decide how to move forward on this issue, which will likely have more complex implications for products beyond neonicotinoid pesticides.