EPA Gives Agribusiness Giant Syngenta a Pass on Pesticide Monitoring Due to Covid-19 Concerns

Johnathan Hettinger May 5, 2020

The EPA recently allowed the Swiss agribusiness giant to halt its water monitoring program of a pesticide linked to reproductive issues and cancer.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Amid COVID-19 restric­tions, the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has allowed Swiss agribusi­ness giant Syn­gen­ta to halt its water mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram of a pes­ti­cide linked to repro­duc­tive issues and can­cer that is found in the drink­ing water of mil­lions of Americans.

Since 2004, the agency has required Syn­gen­ta to mon­i­tor water­ways for atrazine, a potent her­bi­cide often sprayed on corn, because of its effects on human and eco­log­i­cal health.

But Syn­gen­ta asked for a reprieve this grow­ing sea­son in order to com­ply with trav­el restric­tions imposed by Mid­west­ern states, where the most pol­lu­tion usu­al­ly occurs. 

On April 1, the EPA grant­ed that request.

The atrazine eco­log­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram is a labor-inten­sive pro­gram requir­ing trav­el to five states in a time­ly man­ner. Due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, most of the states in the mon­i­tor­ing regions have issued shel­ter in place orders,” said Chris Toti­no, a spokesman for Syn­gen­ta. Addi­tion­al­ly, many com­pa­nies like Syn­gen­ta have insti­tut­ed trav­el restric­tions for the pro­tec­tion of their employ­ees’ health. The mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram could not be con­duct­ed this year with­out ask­ing work­ers to vio­late these trav­el restric­tions and put them­selves in harm’s way.”

An EPA spokesper­son said the deci­sion was made after care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion to bal­ance human health and safe­ty dur­ing COVID-19 ver­sus human and envi­ron­men­tal health. Syn­gen­ta will have to resume mon­i­tor­ing in 2021, the spokesper­son said.

The EPA announced in March it would tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend enforce­ment of many envi­ron­men­tal laws because of COVID-19.

But crit­ics say the pan­dem­ic is just an excuse for light­en­ing restrictions.

This isn’t real­ly about enforce­ment, it’s about mon­i­tor­ing, and using the pan­dem­ic to your advan­tage. The gov­ern­ment is just sort of giv­ing them a free pass,” said Nathan Don­ley, a senior sci­en­tist at the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, a nation­al non­prof­it con­ser­va­tion organization.

Pop­u­lar pesticide

Atrazine is the sec­ond most wide­ly used her­bi­cide in the Unit­ed States, after Bayer’s glyphosate, the active ingre­di­ent in Roundup. 

The chem­i­cal is sol­u­ble in water and is often in water­ways, said Emi­ly Mar­quez, a staff sci­en­tist with the Pes­ti­cide Action Net­work.

The Euro­pean Union has banned the weed killer because of its links to human health, which include an increased num­ber of mis­car­riages, loss of fer­til­i­ty in men and a poten­tial to cause can­cer.

The EPA’s own sci­en­tists have also linked the pes­ti­cide to lev­els harm­ful to frogs and oth­er amphib­ians, whose pop­u­la­tions are declining. 

In 2018, the Envi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group found the chem­i­cal is in tap water of about 30 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and fre­quent­ly spikes above lev­els con­sid­ered safe. Those spikes most fre­quent­ly occur dur­ing May, June and July, when atrazine is large­ly used.

Atrazine is most harm­ful to species dur­ing devel­op­ment, in spring,” said Jen­nifer Sass, a senior sci­en­tist at the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil, in an emailed state­ment. So, spring rep­re­sents the trag­ic per­fect storm’ of high atrazine use, and the peri­od of high­est vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the local ecosys­tem. Fail­ure to mon­i­tor dur­ing this peri­od will result in a fail­ure of the whole pro­gram for the year.”

Syn­gen­ta main­tains atrazine is safe for humans and the envi­ron­ment at rel­e­vant expo­sure lev­els and it has been approved for use by reg­u­la­to­ry bod­ies around the world,” Tuti­no said.

Com­pa­ny sought sus­pen­sion before

The request to tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend the pro­gram comes just months after Syn­gen­ta asked the EPA to halt the pro­gram alto­geth­er in August. 

Since 2004, Syn­gen­ta has had to mon­i­tor drink­ing water lev­els and stream lev­els of atrazine in order to gath­er more infor­ma­tion about human and envi­ron­men­tal health. The mon­i­tor­ing has result­ed in what Syn­gen­ta called the most robust mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram for atrazine ever car­ried out.”

The pro­gram col­lects dai­ly sam­pling data through­out the atrazine use sea­son. While unfor­tu­nate, the loss of one year of sam­pling data will not adverse­ly affect the qual­i­ty of the mon­i­tor­ing dataset,” Toti­no said.

At the request of Syn­gen­ta, the EPA deter­mined in Decem­ber that Syn­gen­ta could halt mon­i­tor­ing for drink­ing water lev­els, but decid­ed to con­tin­ue to require eco­log­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing because water lev­els con­tin­ued to show atrazine con­cen­tra­tions of poten­tial eco­log­i­cal con­cern in the most vul­ner­a­ble water­sheds, even when stew­ard­ship pro­grams are employed.”

The EPA, in reap­prov­ing the her­bi­cide, did lessen the amount of mon­i­tor­ing required. At the same time, EPA also allowed the amount of atrazine in water ways to increase by 50 percent.

Since the ini­ti­a­tion of the mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram in 2004, depend­ing on weath­er pat­terns and oth­er fac­tors, atrazine con­cen­tra­tions in some waters have seen a down­ward trend, while oth­ers have need­ed addi­tion­al focus to bring those con­cen­tra­tions down fur­ther,” an EPA spokesper­son said in an emailed state­ment. Miss­ing mon­i­tor­ing data in 2020 will result in some uncer­tain­ty on the effec­tive­ness of the mit­i­ga­tion in those waters being mon­i­tored. How­ev­er, we have required mon­i­tor­ing for the 2021 grow­ing season.”

Don­ley said miss­ing one year of data could be very con­se­quen­tial if it hap­pens to be a year when there is a lot of rain and would like­ly be high­er lev­els of pes­ti­cides in the water.

Mar­quez said mon­i­tor­ing mat­ters because farm­ers can’t real­ly con­trol how much gets into the water.” Though it could make sense to halt mon­i­tor­ing dur­ing shel­ter-in-place orders, what mat­ters is that EPA knows it is harm­ful, yet con­tin­ues to allow for the pes­ti­cide to be used, she said.

It’s just real­ly prob­lem­at­ic that some of the sci­en­tists at EPA are say­ing one thing, but the actu­al pol­i­cy is doing some­thing else,” she said.

The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing is a non­prof­it, online news­room offer­ing inves­tiga­tive and enter­prise cov­er­age of agribusi­ness, Big Ag and relat­ed issues through data analy­sis, visu­al­iza­tions, in-depth reports and inter­ac­tive web tools. Vis­it us online at www​.inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org

Johnathan Het­tinger is a jour­nal­ist based in Liv­ingston, Mon­tana. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cen­tral Illi­nois and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, he has worked at the Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing, the Liv­ingston Enter­prise and the (Cham­paign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Con­tact Johnathan at jhett93@​gmail.​com and fol­low him on Twit­ter @jhett93.
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