OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - California is endangering honeybees, and the billion-dollar industry they support, by expanding approvals for neonicotinioid pesticides, which have been linked to colony collapse disorder, environmental groups claim in court.
Pesticide Action Network North America, the Center for Food Safety, and Beyond Pesticides sued the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and its top official on Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court.
"In 2006, honeybees began dying at unprecedented rates," the groups state in their 46-page complaint. "Today, whether honeybees will survive and recover in America is uncertain, and so we have reached the point of agricultural and environmental crisis. About one-third of the food we eat - and an even greater proportion of our overall nutrition - comes from plants that will not make fruit or seed unless they are pollinated by a bee. The crisis is especially acute in California, because we are the largest producer of crops that require honeybees for pollination, including our most valuable crop: almonds."
The lawsuit continues: "While the reasons for the honeybee collapse are complex, scientists have identified chronic exposure to insecticides as a significant factor. In particular, scientists have pointed to a family of insecticides called 'neonicotinioids,' which were developed in the late 1990s and are now ubiquitous in agriculture. Neonicotinoids are long-lasting and highly toxic to honeybees, and there is ample scientific evidence that their use has exacerbated - if not triggered - the honeybee crisis."
As the agency tasked with overseeing the sale and use of pesticides in California, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is well aware of the harm pesticides pose to honeybees, the groups say.
The agency in early 2009 began reevaluating whether to restrict the use of neonicotinoids, but five years have passed "with no end in sight, and DPR has taken no significant steps to protect honeybees," the complaint states.
In fact, the groups say, the agency has made things worse for bees by expanding the use of two neonicotinioids, Venom Insecticide and Dinotefuran 20SG, "without any meaningful analysis or feasible alternatives."
Neonicotinioids work by interfering with insects' central nervous systems, causing them to suffer tremors, paralysis and death. When these chemicals are sprayed onto plants or seeds, the plants absorb them through the vascular system and become "highly toxic" to any insect that touches them, according to the complaint.
After reports indicated that crops sprayed with certain types of neonicotinioids could be extremely dangerous to honeybees, Pesticide Regulation put all such pesticides under reevaluation, the complaint states.
But despite ample scientific evidence concluding that these chemicals are significant factors in honeybee decline, the agency has approved 15 new neonicotinioid products or expanded uses for existing products since 2012, according to the complaint.
The groups claim Pesticide Regulation approved Venom Insecticide, Dinotefuran 20SG, and similar insecticides without proper environmental analysis, in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other environmental laws.
The reports the agency issued with its approvals for Venom Insecticide and Dinotefuran 20SG include "the same boilerplate [language] that DPR has used repeatedly in the past regarding environmental affects and alternatives, and they reach the same conclusion: ... [that] they will have 'no direct or indirect significant adverse environmental impact, and therefore no alternatives or mitigation measures are proposed,'" the complaint states.
Among other things, the groups say, the reports fail to analyze the direct and cumulative impacts that approving these pesticides will have on honeybees and other pollinating insects in light of the agency's past and future decisions regarding neonicotinioid use.
The groups say they have submitted many comments urging Pesticide Regulation not to approve these and other neonicotinioids, but the agency dismissed their concerns.
They seek declaratory judgment that Pesticide Regulation violated CEQA by illegally registering Venom Insecticide, Dinotefuran 20SG, and other neonicotinioids during the reevaluation process, and ask the court to vacate the agency's approval of these pesticides.
They also want an injunction preventing the agency from registering any new neonicotinioids and other products that are toxic to bees, or from approving existing products for additional uses that could threaten bee populations, until the agency completes CEQA-compliant studies on pesticide impacts on bees.
Finally, the groups ask the court to find that Pesticide Regulation breached its duties to protect honeybees from pesticide exposure.
The groups are represented by Gregory C. Loarie of San Francisco with EarthJustice.