SACRAMENTO, California - A three-judge panel Thursday cancelled the approval granted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a pesticide sulfoxaflor, which is alleged to be linked to the decline of honeybees and other pollinators over the last decade.
Vacating the EPA's unconditional registration, the judges panel at the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals directed the environment regulator to obtain further studies and data regarding the effects of sulfoxaflor on bees, as required by the regulations.
The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act prohibits the use or sale of pesticides that lack approval and registration by the EPA.
The petitioners which include four beekeeping organizations and three individual beekeepers had appealed to the court to review the EPA's approval of the pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act in 2013.
Petitioners, who are commercial bee keepers and bee keeping organizations, had challenged the EPA's approval of insecticides containing sulfoxaflor, which initial studies showed were highly toxic to bees.
The panel held that because the EPA's decision to unconditionally register sulfoxaflor, a neonicotinoid pesticide, was based on flawed and limited data, the EPA's unconditional approval will be vacated.
The panel found justification in the petition of the Pollinator Stewardship Council; the American Honey Producers Association; the National Honey Bee Advisory Board; the American Beekeeping Federation; and beekeepers Bret Adee, Jeff Anderson and Thomas Smith that the use of an insecticide has been linked to the decline of honeybees and other pollinators over the last decade.
"Bees are essential to pollinate important crops and in recent years have been dying at alarming rates," Judge Mary M. Schroeder wrote for the panel."Given the precariousness of bee populations, leaving the EPA's registration of sulfoxaflor in place risked more potential environmental harm than vacating it."
The court found that the EPA had granted "unconditional" registration even though sulfoxaflor's manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences LLC, had provided limited data and studies that didn't conform to international guidelines.
The judge also found that the studies didn't account for brood development within the hive and long-term colony health.
"Because the honey bee colony is an interdependent 'super organism,' the effect of an insecticide on one type of bee can ripple through the hive," wrote Schroeder in her ruling on a case first filed in 2013.
The court said the EPA recognized the potential hazard to bees but decided the risks would be reduced by rules limiting its applications. That decision was made without "any meaningful study," the court said.
"Given the precariousness of bee populations, leaving the EPA's registration of sulfoxaflor in place risks more potential environmental harm than vacating it," the 9th Circuit concluded.
Greg Loarie of Earthjustice, an environmental law organization that represented the petitioners, praised the court for wading into technical aspects of the case, which he deemed a "wake-up call" for EPA to be more fastidious and transparent in how it brings pesticides to market.
Michele Colopy, program director with the Pollinator Stewardship Council, applauded the decision.
"With the findings in this case EPA may be encouraged to re-examine other unconditional registrations for possible flawed and limited data," she said in a statement.
EPA is set to review the registration of five other neonicotinoid insecticides by 2019.
Janette Brimmer, who represented the beekeepers for Earthjustice, an environmental group, said the ruling affects the entire country and will force states to withdraw more local rules that have permitted the insecticide.
Federal appeals courts "almost never" overturn EPA approvals of pesticides, Brimmer pointed out.
Dow Agrosciences, a unit of Dow Chemicals, was an intervenor in the case.
Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for Dow Agrosciences, said the company is considering available options for challenging the court's decisions.
"Dow AgroSciences respectfully disagrees with the Ninth Circuit's conclusion that EPA's registration of products containing sulfoxaflor should be vacated. Dow AgroSciences will work with EPA to implement the order and to promptly complete additional regulatory work to support the registration of these products," Hamlin said in a statement.