At a joint hearing of the House Committees on Agriculture and Natural Resources, members questioned officials of USDA, EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about the impact of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on pesticide use. Under the ESA, EPA is required to consult with NMFS or FWS (the Services) on pesticide registration decisions that could affect endangered species. After the agencies issue their biological opinions, EPA can take mitigation measures that include buffer zones around critical habitats where pesticides may not be sprayed or other restrictions.

Environmental groups in California and the Northwest have successfully sued EPA for failing to consult on endangered species. The courts have imposed onerous buffer zones and other restrictions on pesticide uses in these areas pending the completion of the consultations, which have been ongoing for years. The biological opinions that have been issued by the Services have been criticized for their scientific integrity.

In the latest such suit filed in January in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, activists are seeking to require EPA to consult on the effects of more than 300 pesticides on 214 endangered species across the entire United States. The NCC and other agricultural groups have intervened in this case (the “mega-suit”) to have the right to provide input on any settlement agreement the agency might negotiate.

Debra Edwards, former director of EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, said that the current consultation process is far too opaque, the biological opinions too inconsistent and the requirements as they now exist far too burdensome to be met by EPA or other agencies. She predicted it could be several years before the issue is resolved.

The process "needs attention, both from a scientific and a process perspective," Edwards said. "This complex, multifaceted pesticide use situation will require literally hundreds of thousands of analyses and decision points and, in my opinion, constitutes a significant resource challenge for the departments and the agency involved."

During the hearing, congressional members urged EPA to halt further interagency consultations until the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issues a study on streamlining the process. In March, EPA asked the NAS to examine a number of scientific issues that came up in recent consultations between EPA and the Services, including "the identification of best-available scientific data and information," consideration of cumulative effects and the use of models, but the letter did not mention economic considerations.

Rep. Costa, D-Calif., asked federal officials at the hearing to commit to holding off on issuing future biological opinions until the economic impacts of the consultations could be considered, an issue that NAS potentially might address. Most Republican members of the committees also expressed their concerns about the economic impacts of the process.

Stephen Bradbury, director of EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, responded on behalf of the federal witnesses that they would have to consult with their respective agency heads before making such a commitment.