The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture announced an unprecedented plan Friday to entrust testing for water pollution from atrazine, one of the most heavily used weedkillers in the country, to the chemical's manufacturer.
The EPA called the plan for monitoring by Syngenta Crop Protection "an innovative protective approach." Syngenta, based in Greensboro, N.C., is a subsidiary of the Swiss agribusiness Syngenta.
Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based environmental lobby, condemned the arrangement. "Instead of requiring a polluter to stop polluting, EPA is cutting a deal with the corporation to let them off the hook," he said. The new monitoring agreement was struck without consulting environmentalists, he said.
Friday's announcement came as part of an ongoing review begun nine years ago to reevaluate the safety of the chemical, which was licensed for use in the U.S. in 1959 and became the most heavily used weedkiller in American agriculture.
Corn growers across the Midwest estimate that it saves them $36 an acre by suppressing weeds, reducing labor costs and increasing productivity.
However, since 1989, scientists outside agriculture have questioned whether atrazine's use might not come with a wider social cost. The weedkiller was put under review as a potential carcinogen when epidemiological studies in the 1990s identified what appeared to be a high incidence of prostate cancer among workers at an atrazine manufacturing plant in St. Gabriel, La. Syngenta said the higher incidence of the disease was the result of increased vigilance with screening.
However, spring spikes in atrazine rates in drinking water continued to raise alarms. Across the Corn Belt states in springtime, when atrazine is used most heavily before planting corn and sorghum, water testing by the U.S. Geological Survey has found rates from 10 to 100 times higher than the 3 parts per billion allowed by the EPA in drinking water.
Because the chemical is absorbed into the atmosphere and spread with rainwater, it is found as far away as the Arctic. Water sampled by the USGS often finds trace levels of atrazine.
Last year, a UC Berkeley study showed that quantities 30 times lower than allowed in drinking water still caused gross malformations in frogs. Earlier this year, University of Missouri-Columbia epidemiologists found reproductive problems in humans. Their study found male semen counts to be almost 50% lower in Missouri farm country where atrazine was used than in big cities, where it wasn't. "The results were very surprising to me," said the study's author, statistician Shanna H. Swan.
An ongoing study looking at men in Iowa corn country is producing similar results, she said.
However, Syngenta and the EPA say that hundreds of other tests commissioned by the company show the results to be either unsound or inconclusive. The EPA said Friday that there were no grounds to introduce new restrictions on atrazine use.
The European Union recently announced a ban on use of atrazine. Syngenta plans to replace the chemical in Europe with an alternative, terbuthylazine. However, the company has not sought permission to market the chemical in the U.S., said Syngenta spokeswoman Sherry Ford. "It did not work as well on U.S. weeds," she said.
Analysts estimate that Syngenta supplies 98% of the estimated 75 million pounds of atrazine applied to U.S. fields every year. The new Syngenta monitoring program will start in March by looking at 20 waterways in 10 states: Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Tennessee and Louisiana.
Ford called the transformation from pesticide manufacturer to environmental monitor part of a new era of stewardship. "This is one way we can ensure it's not presenting any risk to the environment," she said.
Olson said NRDC sees the plan as an abandonment of government responsibility under the Clean Water Act.
"They're going to require Syngenta to monitor 3% of the 1172 highest-risk watersheds, 20 to begin with, then 40 in 2005," Olson said. "Ninety-seven percent of the highest-risk watersheds will not be required to be monitored. It's insane."