SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - U.S. environmental regulators illegally approved overuse of pesticides that caused honeybee colony collapse disorder, threatening agriculture throughout North America, nonprofits claim in Federal Court.
Colony collapse disorder has baffled and alarmed farmers and scientists since 2006. Worker bees abandon hives and vanish en masse, leaving behind the queen and unhatched brood, food and honey-and the hive eventually dies.
In the years since beekeepers first reported the catastrophic losses, hives across the United States have seen yearly declines averaging 35 percent.
A 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report blames the collapses on a combination of environmental stressors that leave worker bees susceptible to viruses, parasites, mites and other pathogens.
But a peer-reviewed report this year from the European Food Safety Authority said that recent studies show that neonicotinoid pesticides - widely used throughout the world - pose a significant risk to bees and contribute to colony collapse disorder.
In their new federal complaint, environmental groups agree.
Plaintiffs Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Sierra Club, Pesticide Action Network North America and Center for Environmental Health - and four beekeepers - sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the top two officials in its Office of Pesticide Programs, its director Steven Bradbury and deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe.
The complaint states: "Clothianidin and thiamethoxam are systemic insecticides that are taken up by a plant's vascular system as it grows and are expressed through its tissues, including flowers, pollen and nectar. They share a common mode of action that damages the central nervous system of honey bees. When bees forage on pollen or nectar from treated crops, or are otherwise exposed to even extremely small levels of these compounds, paralysis and death can result. Over the past decade, the proliferating use of the neonicotinoid class of pesticides has coincided with mass die-offs of honey bee populations in the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, documented as early as 2003-2004 in the United States, with first reported case findings in 2006."
Neonicotinoid poisons affect normal bee behavior in a number of ways that combined lead to hive death, according to the complaint.
"Honey bees are social insects that rely heavily on memory, cognition and communication to coordinate activities essential for their survival. Chronic ingestion of neonicotinoids damages foraging behavior, overall mobility and the communication by which they coordinate their activities. Neonicotinoid pesticides can also have several other indirect effects on honey bees, such as causing premature shifts in hive roles. They can impair honey bees' medium-term olfactory memory and associative learning abilities, which foraging honey bees rely on to find their way back to the hive," the complaint states.
The environmentalists accuse the EPA of turning a blind eye for years to the deliberate misuse of neonicotinoids by farmers, who ignore warnings and directions for use of the pesticides. Clothianidin and thiamethoxam are both marketed by Bayer AG under a number of brand names, and Syngenta also has worldwide distribution rights for thiamethoxam.
"Due to EPA's actions and inactions alleged herein, clothianidin and thiamethoxam are spread widely throughout hundreds of millions of acres of both agricultural and neighboring lands. The neighboring lands are where these toxic compounds are not intended to be and are often lands not owned by the farmers applying the compounds. These lands adjacent to agricultural fields in many cases are prime remaining bee and native insect habitats. Due to the long persistence of these compounds and the uncontrollable drifting and blowing of contaminated dust and soil, bees and other insects are victims of multiple exposure pathways that EPA failed to assess when the agency approved the pesticides - and still has failed to assess. Key among these exposure pathways are residues in pollen and nectar, dust from treated seeds and soils, planter exhaust, untreated but contaminated non-crop plants adjacent to treated fields, contaminated puddles in fields and adjacent surface water, guttation [the secretion of water from the pores of plants] droplets on both treated and untreated but contaminated plants and residue from foliar uses," the complaint states.
EPA scientists have repeatedly described the severe impacts of neonicotinoids on bee populations in their own internal risk assessments, the environmentalists say. And in countries where use of clothianidin and thiamethoxam has been suspended or restricted - Austria, Italy, France, Germany and Slovenia - honey bee colonies began to thrive again.
To its credit, the EPA has suggested "non-mandatory best management practices" to reduce the environmental effects of clothianidin and thiamethoxam. But the EPA claims it lacks the authority to do more than that under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.
The environmentalists say that even if the agency had the authority to further regulate the pesticides, it would take years for users to comply with enhanced regulations.
"As a result, clothianidin- and thiamethoxam-treated seeds will continue to be planted across hundreds of millions of acres in 2013 and beyond. To date, EPA has provided no formal direction or label changes to farmers on how to minimize non-target effects, how and where to clean out crop planters, or what steps to take to avoid effects to nearby honey bees or insect-pollinated plants. In short, the imminent hazard the defendants have allowed will reinitiate in about April 2013, when corn and other crop planting season begins again," according to the complaint.
Neonicotinoids also harm other beneficial insects, including bumblebees, butterflies, ladybug and lacewings, dragonflies and hoverflies. These are essential to pollination and insect control and are being decimated by the pesticides as well, the environmentalists say.
And even after finding that "clothianidin is expected to present acute and/or chronic toxicity risk to endangered/threatened birds and mammals via possible ingestion of treated corn and canola seeds ... [and] via residue-laden pollen and nectar" across the United States, the EPA has shirked its duty to consult with Fish and Wildlife Service about approval of the pesticides, the groups say.
"For at least one neoncotinoid insecticide, FWS scientists are on record stating 'EPA is ignoring their duties with respect to consulting with FWS.' This is in fact true for all thiamethoxam and clothianidin product use approvals subject to this action. According to EPA documents, there are hundreds of federally listed threatened and endangered species occurrences in states where clothianidin and thiamethoxam are used in which direct or indirect effects are foreseeable, but EPA has disregarded those effects determinations with respect to the Endangered Species Act consultation requirements," the complaint states.
Despite FIFRA requirements that the EPA make its data public before registering a pesticide for use, the EPA routinely fails to do so, according to the complaint. And the EPA routinely issues "conditional" approvals which remain in place without further examination for up to 10 years.
"Together with a coalition of beekeepers and public interest groups, plaintiffs Beyond Pesticides and PANNA delivered a letter to defendants dated Dec. 8, 2010, requesting suspension of clothianidin's registration due to inadequate data on impacts to pollinators and excessive agency delay in ensuring compliance with that condition. By letter of Feb. 18, 2011, defendants refused that suspension request. Plaintiffs CFS, Beyond Pesticides, PANNA, Steve Ellis and Tom Theobald, along with a coalition of beekeepers and honey producers and public interest groups, submitted the Clothianidin Legal Petition to EPA to suspend the registration of clothianidin on March 20, 2012, rooted in the nine-year unreasonable delay in ensuring full compliance with the 'conditional registration' conditions for clothianidin. They followed that petition with two supplemental filings, dated May 3, 2012 and June 18, 2012, respectively. These consisted of information that came to light after the petition was filed, including critical new data on how certain uses of clothianidin constitute an 'imminent hazard' to honey bees and other beneficial insects that compelled a decision to promptly suspend clothianidin's registration. By letter dated July 17, 2012, defendants denied the portion of the petition that alleged an 'imminent threat' existed. That letter indicated EPA did not consider the May 3, 2012 and June 18, 2012 supplemental filings in making that decision. To date, the agency has yet to issue a decision based on the supplemental evidence showing imminent hazard or on any of the other new science and extensive mass honey bee kill data that emerged after the petition was filed. Defendant Bradbury's letter of July 17, 2012 stated his denial of the imminent hazard claim in the petition was EPA's 'final action pursuant to section 16 of FIFRA' with respect to that claim. There was no Federal Register notice, no public hearing and no opportunity for notice and comment prior to this final action. The EPA has yet to resolve any of the remaining claims in the petition or to reconsider its denial of an 'imminent hazard' based on the full administrative record before it," the environmentalists say in the complaint.
EPA scientists warned the agency to do more study on the effects of clothianidin on bee colonies as early as February 2003, the groups say. Two months later, the EPA issued a conditional approval for the poison - allowing it to go on sale nationwide - while the registrant supposedly made arrangements to conduct the study.
"To date, for clothianidin, the requirement of a complete and adequate life-cycle study and evaluation of exposure and effects to the queen bee, remains unmet. This also applies in the case of thiamethoxam, as EPA's pollinator field test conditions for it incorporated and mirrored the conditions imposed for clothianidin," the complaint states.
The groups say similar attempts to reverse the conditional registration of thiamethoxam - which the bees metabolize into clothianidin - met with the dismal same fate at the EPA.
The agency estimates it will make its final decision on the poisons' conditional registrations in 2018 - 15 years after receiving the applications and issuing conditional approvals.
This is not the first time the EPA has faced criticism for its conditional approval of clothianidin. In 2008, the National Resources Defense Council demanded
the agency produce records on to its permit to Bayer.
On its website
, the NRDC - which is not a party to the beekeepers' complaint - lists 42 crops grown in the U.S. that require bees for pollination.
"The list of crops that simply won't grow without honey bees is a long one: Apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, almonds ... and it goes on. Without bees to pollinate many of our favorite fruits and vegetables, the United States could lose $15 billion worth of crops - not to mention what it would do to your diet," the NRDC says on its website.
The environmental groups and beekeepers seek declaratory and injunctive relief for EPA violations of the Endangered Species Act, Administrative Procedure Act and FIFRA. They want the court to vacate the agency's conditional approvals of products containing clothianidin and thiamethoxam and an immediate suspension of their use.
They are represented by house counsel for the Center for Food Safety's counsel: George Kimbrell, Peter Jenkins, Paige Tomaselli and Sylvia Shih-Yau Wu.