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Bill to Speed Up Pesticide Tests Sent to Reagan

Times Staff Writer

Landmark legislation to speed up the retesting of 600 active ingredients used in nearly 50,000 commercial pesticides easily cleared its last congressional hurdle Wednesday and headed for President Reagan’s expected signature.

In a matter of seconds and without discussion, the Senate approved by voice vote the first significant change in pesticide control laws since 1978. The bill sets a nine-year deadline for companies to test old pesticides against modern health standards and for the Environmental Protection Agency to decide whether they should stay on the market.

“This is a major breakthrough,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the same measure approved last week by the House. “Instead of taking more than 30 years for EPA to find out which pesticides are dangerous, they can do it in nine.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), another co-sponsor, said that “this may well be the most important environmental legislation Congress will pass this year.”

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Compromise Measure

Industry and environmental groups reluctantly backed the bill after sponsors stripped out controversial provisions that had been holding up action for years. The compromise measure avoids issues such as groundwater contamination, a key concern of environmentalists, and demands by the chemical industry that Congress preempt the states’ right to enact pesticide regulations tougher than those issued by the EPA.

The Reagan Administration supported the bill after two concerns were met: how to pay for the stepped-up testing and how to shield the EPA budget from damage when the agency takes pesticides off the market.

Under the legislation, chemical companies will pay $150 million to accelerate tests that have been bogged down for more than a decade because of a lack of money and personnel at EPA. The bill authorizes only $100 million in federal funds for the testing program, the agency’s current funding rate.

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Only a few pesticides used on farms and in homes and gardens have been fully retested against new standards. At the current pace, the job would not have been completed until 2024, according to Congress’ General Accounting Office.

Eases Financial Constraints

Another major provision is aimed at making it financially easier to ban unsafe pesticides. Currently, the government must compensate pesticide companies when regulators take their products off the market for safety reasons.

Critics charged that EPA has hesitated to ban products for fear of draining the Treasury. Under the bill, the chemical industry would bear most product cancellation costs.

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“EPA will now have the ability to blow the whistle without being stymied by the sheer costs of finding something wrong,” Lugar commented.

Janet Hathaway, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, said that “we don’t have any way to guess” the number of pesticides that will be found unsafe by new testing. The EPA has estimated, she said, that companies will drop 20% to 30% of their products rather than go through the expense of the tests.

Welcomes Faster Pace

Dr. Jack Early, president of the National Agricultural Chemicals Assn., said last week that “there’s not a heck of a lot in (the legislation) for my industry, but it speeds up the registration process, and that’s important for everyone.” He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

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Public Citizen, an environmental and consumer advocacy group, praised passage of the legislation but complained that it provided only half a loaf.

“We’re urging Congress to tackle groundwater contamination, farm worker protections, food safety issues and the export of banned pesticides next session,” said Laura Kelsey Rhodes, an attorney for the group.

Wants Groundwater Bill

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters that he is committed to working for passage of a “good, strong groundwater bill” after the new Congress convenes in January.

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Lugar, the committee’s senior Republican, said: “I’ll support the chairman in putting it on the agenda.” But he cautioned that farmers and environmentalists have “honest differences” over what amounts of contaminating chemicals should be allowed.


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