November 27, 2004
U.S. Gets Another Reprieve on Use of Pesticide by Farms
By Juliet Eilperin
International negotiators ruled yesterday that the United States can continue using methyl bromide, a pesticide set to be banned next year because it contributes to the destruction of the Earth's ozone layer.
The pesticide, which has also been linked to prostate cancer and neurological damage, is used widely by American tomato and strawberry farmers and was slated to be eliminated worldwide in 2005 under the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty to restrict the use of ozone-destroying chemicals. The Bush administration had previously secured a one-year reprieve on the grounds that the pesticide qualified for a "critical use" exemption because viable alternatives to methyl bromide are lacking. Yesterday, experts on ozone policy and diplomats extended the U.S. exemption until next year but said the country must cut its use in 2006.
Negotiators for the treaty, which is considered one of the most successful environmental pacts in history, agreed in Prague that in 2005 the United States can use about 37 percent of the amount of methyl bromide it used in 1991, when the phaseout began, but that it can count on only a 27 percent exemption the following year, which would amount to 7,605 tons. The United States had asked for a 37 percent exemption for both years, and it obtained a promise from international negotiators that the group will revisit the issue next summer to determine if it could restore the higher allowance.
Claudia A. McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of state for the environment, said the decision shows that policymakers overseas "acknowledge we are working hard at this, we're having a difficult time, we need their help and we're making a sound technical case" for greater exclusions.
Methyl bromide, a fumigant injected into the soil to kill insects, weeds and disease, remains popular among farmers because it works well. It is also used to fumigate food processing and storage areas, such as grain bins and flour mills, to kill insects and rodents.
David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center, said that, rather than resisting further restrictions, the administration should embrace the treaty.
"It's time for the U.S. to stop defending the status quo use of this chemical by agribusiness and start pushing these growers to complete the phaseout," said Doniger, who attended the Prague talks.
Thirteen countries, including the United States, had sought critical-use exemptions for 2006, said Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman, and 10 got smaller exemptions than they requested. The United States, the world's largest agricultural producer, asked for the biggest methyl bromide allowance.
Ozone, a form of oxygen, is a dangerous pollutant at ground level but forms, high in the atmosphere, a thin layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. Three decades ago, scientists discovered that several man-made chemicals were filtering into the upper atmosphere and thinning the ozone layer over Antarctica, allowing cancer-causing rays to reach the Earth. In recent years, the southern "ozone hole" reached worrisome proportions, but scientists expect it to disappear in 50 years if countries around the world phase out all the chemicals identified in the Montreal Protocol.
The Agriculture Department has spent $150 million on research into methyl bromide substitutes over the past decade, but farmers, especially in California and Florida, say they have yet to find an acceptable alternative. The international negotiators granted the United States yesterday an additional exemption of 2.5 percent for next year, most of which will go to California strawberry growers and which will bring the 2005 exclusion to more than 37 percent of the 1991 level.
McMurray said that the treaty's technical advisory panel had based its call for a 27 percent U.S. exemption in 2006 on "a very arbitrary basis," and that she spent the past week trying to reverse the recommendation. The fact that negotiators are willing to reconsider the issue next year, she said, shows that the administration had made a strong case for a bigger allowance.
But Kevin Fay, a Washington lobbyist who represents both producers of alternative pesticides and manufacturers that have been forced to comply with the Montreal Protocol in past decades, questioned McMurray's argument.
"The advances in the alternatives are greater than what's been portrayed," Fay said, adding that the United States could go further "in accepting that fact."