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‘Absurd and reckless’: Trump administration uses coronavirus pandemic as cover as it loosens crop poison regulation

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Sarah Okeson
Sarah Okeson

The Trump EPA wants to reapprove a dangerous herbicide and is hiding behind the COVID-19 pandemic to excuse its manufacturer from monitoring levels of the poison in Midwest lakes and streams.

The Trump EPA plans to raise the concentration of atrazine, the nation’s second-most used herbicide, allowed in streams and lakes to 15 parts per billion, more than four times higher than what the EPA had recommended under Obama. In April, Elissa Reaves, the acting director of the herbicide re-evaluation division, suspended the monitoring program for the rest of the year.

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“The public will now have no idea whether dangerous levels of atrazine are reaching rivers and streams throughout the Midwest,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “That’s absurd and reckless.”

Atrazine, which is banned in Europe, often washes into streams and lakes and is one of the most common contaminants of drinking water. It chemically castrates frogs. More than 70 million pounds of atrazine was sprayed in 2016,  mostly to control weeds in cornfields but also on sorghum, sugarcane and other crops.

Syngenta, the Swiss company that is the main manufacturer of atrazine, didn’t report any federal lobbying in 2019, but its former lobbyists include Jeff Sands who took a $99,125 pay cut in 2017 to work for then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as a senior agricultural advisor.

Sands, who is no longer at the EPA, received an ethics waiver from Don McGahn, then Trump’s attorney, to be able to participate in agricultural issues, including those which he previously lobbied. The waiver was not supposed to include anything relating to Syngenta.

The Swiss company is known for trashing its critics and wielded influence over EPA decisions long before Trump was elected. Syngenta commissioned a psychological profile of Tyrone Hayes, the University of California, Berkeley, professor whose research found atrazine appeared to disrupt the sexual development of frogs.

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The EPA’s 2007 and 2012 assessments of atrazine excluded 74 of 75 published laboratory studies on the effects of atrazine on amphibians. The single study it relied on, which found virtually no adverse reproductive impacts even at relatively high doses of atrazine, was funded by Syngenta and had a co-author, Alan Hosmer, who was an employee of Syngenta.

The EPA’s ecological risk assessment, done during the Obama administration, repeatedly cites a 2008 paper, funded by Syngenta, about atrazine’s effects on fish, amphibians and reptiles by pesticide industry consultant Keith Solomon and his colleagues.

Jason Rohr and Krista McCoy, then at the University of South Florida, found that Solomon misrepresented more than 50 of the studies he and his colleagues reviewed with 122 inaccurate and 22 misleading statements. About 96.5% of these inaccurate or misleading statements appeared to benefit Syngenta.

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Frogs are an indicator species, meaning that harm to them can show risks to other species. The average decline for amphibian populations is about 3.8% a year. At this rate, some species will disappear in half the habitats they occupy in about 20 years.

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