What happened: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sidestepped the normal public comment process, including the input of scientists, when it approved the use of a cancer-causing pesticide for soybean plants in 25 states.
Why it matters: By thwarting the normal public comment process, the EPA restricted the ability of the public and scientific experts to weigh in on a policy that is likely to have major public health and environmental consequences.
Except for a small group of industry representatives and farmers, the public and the scientific community were unaware of and therefore restricted in their ability to provide public comments to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the use of an herbicide called isoxaflutole (sold under the brand name Alite 27) for soybean plants in 25 states. This action falls out of line with the Administrative Procedures Act, which recommends that proposed rules be published in the federal register and that a public comment process ought to occur during rulemaking on the same federal register website. Typically the EPA follows this, particularly for rules with significant impacts.
For isoxaflutole, the EPA carried out an odd public comment process that resulted in 54 comments on a different government website. All the comments appeared to come from farmers and industry representatives and all boasted immense praise of the EPA’s proposed action. A senior scientist from the Center for Biological Diversity, who had been actively waiting for the EPA’s public comment on this proposed action, said “Clearly no one from the public health community knew about this because no one commented. Yet there was all these industry comments, all these positive comments. Someone was tipped off that this docket had been opened. One side was able to comment, the other wasn’t.”
Scientific experts believe that the pesticide isoxaflutole heightens the risk of harm to the public and the environment. The EPA considers the pesticide isoxaflutole as a probable human carcinogen, meaning that exposure to the pesticide likely carries an increased risk of cancer. The pesticide is known for its ability to drift as much as 1000 feet from where it was sprayed. A previous EPA evaluation determined that the pesticide likely persists for long periods in the environment, accumulates in surface water and groundwater, and poses a danger to certain aquatic and plant species. Even the EPA’s press release seemed to acknowledge the inherent danger of the pesticide by saying that the “EPA is limiting use to these specific counties to protect endangered or threatened species from exposure.”
Public comments are an important part of the federal rulemaking process. They allow people with a wide range of expertise to provide critical information, including scientific evidence, that can give federal agencies new insights on the logistics and impacts of a proposed action. However, the way that the EPA solicited public comments on the isoxaflutole decision is highly unusual, perhaps even underhanded. By doing so, the agency eliminated input from the vast majority of public health and environmental scientists, who were caught unaware and only learned about it when the final rule was announced via a late March press release. By sidelining the ability of scientists and the public to provide public comments, the EPA was also sidelining the ability to receive valuable scientific information on a major decision that is bound to have large ramifications on people’s health and the environment.