Interior nominee intervened to block report on pesticides’ threat to endangered species
WASHINGTON – After years of effort, scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service had a moment of celebration as they wrapped up a comprehensive analysis of the threat that three widely used pesticides present to hundreds of endangered species, like the kit fox and the seaside sparrow.
“Woohoo!” Patrice Ashfield, then a branch chief at Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters, wrote to her colleagues in August 2017.
Their analysis found that two of the pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos, were so toxic that they “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants, a conclusion that could lead to tighter restrictions on use of the chemicals.
But just before the team planned to make its findings public in November 2017, something unexpected happened: Top political appointees of the Interior Department, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, blocked the release and set in motion a new process intended to apply a much narrower standard to determine the risks from the pesticides.
Leading that intervention was David Bernhardt, then the deputy secretary of the interior and a former lobbyist and oil-industry lawyer. In October 2017, he abruptly summoned staff members to the first of a rapid series of meetings in which the Fish and Wildlife Service was directed to take the new approach, one that pesticide makers and users had lobbied intensively to promote.
Bernhardt is now President Trump’s nominee to become interior secretary. The Senate is scheduled to hold a hearing on his confirmation Thursday.
This sequence of events is detailed in more than 84,000 pages of Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests by The New York Times and, separately, by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that sued the federal government to force it to complete the pesticide studies.
The documents provide a case study of how the Trump administration has been using its power to second-guess or push aside conclusions reached by career professionals, particularly in the area of public health and the environment.
The decision to block the release of the report represented a victory for the pesticide industry, which has industry allies and former executives sprinkled through the administration. Among those with the most at stake were Dow AgroSciences, a manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, which is used on dozens of fruits and vegetables, and FMC Corp., a manufacturer of malathion, which is used against mosquitoes as well as chewing and sucking insects that attack a range of crops, including tomatoes, strawberries and walnuts.
Dow, which was recently renamed Corteva, donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. EPA and Interior Department records show that top pesticide industry executives had regular access to senior agency officials, pressing them to reconsider the way the federal government evaluates the threat pesticides cause to endangered species.
A Dow spokesman said the shift in policy was unrelated to the $1 million contribution. The new approach will result in “a better understanding of where and how pesticides are being used,” said Gregg M. Schmidt, a Corteva spokesman.
Spokesmen for FMC and Adama – the other primary makers of the pesticides being studied – as well as their lawyers and CropLife America, the trade group that represents them, declined to comment.
Asked if Bernhardt’s intervention was appropriate or motivated by a desire to serve the industry’s interests, an Interior Department spokeswoman said his actions had been “governed solely by legitimate concerns regarding the legal sufficiency and policy.”
Before he joined the Trump administration, Bernhardt worked as a lawyer and lobbyist representing clients including the oil and gas industry. He was frequently paid to challenge endangered species-related matters, including one involving a tiny silvery blue fish called the delta smelt whose protection by the federal government has resulted in limits on water use by California farmers.
Agency records suggest Bernhardt, after having had only limited involvement in the issue, had nine meetings or calls on his schedule with Fish and Wildlife staff in October and November 2017, and helped write the letter saying the Interior Department was no longer prepared to release the draft.
Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, the EPA official at the time who ran the office in charge of toxic chemicals and pesticides, said the sudden change in regulatory philosophy was part of a broader trend across the government after Trump’s election.
“It is certainly similar to the pattern we saw in toxic chemicals as well, where the regulated industry had a more sympathetic ear in the new administration,” said Hamnett, who left the EPA in late 2017, after a 38-year career with the agency. “And that resulted in a shift in approach as to how these issues would be handled.”
Gary Frazer, the top endangered species official at the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose schedule says he participated in all nine of the late 2017 discussions with Bernhardt, and who subsequently directed his staff to revise the study, said he did not believe the change in direction was politically driven.
“It was an entirely appropriate role,” he said in an interview, as two of the agency’s public affairs officials listened in. “There was no arm-twisting of any kind.”
The endangered species review is required as part of the re-registration of pesticides, a process that occurs every 15 years.
The pesticide industry, as well as groups representing farmers who rely on its products, began to mobilize as the endangered species review got underway during the Obama administration.
With Trump’s election, the industry escalated its campaign. In April 2017, its lawyers sent a letter to Ryan Zinke, then the interior secretary; Scott Pruitt, then the EPA’s administrator; and the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, asking them to “direct that any effort to prepare biological opinions,” as the process is called, “be set aside,” arguing that the analysis was “fundamentally flawed.”
The industry’s central argument was that the federal scientists were not sufficiently taking into account the difference between how the pesticides could legally be used and how they were actually used.
Staff members at the Fish and Wildlife Service, emails show, did have access to actual pesticide usage, as well as other information, such as measurements of pesticide concentrations found in salmon-bearing streams in Washington state.
But the agency staff – working from dozens of field offices like Hawaii and Maine as well as the headquarters – generally built its predictions of a “jeopardy” threat to endangered species by assuming the pesticides were being used to the maximum extent possible as allowed by their labels.
That is because “unlike most other types of product labels, pesticide labels are legally enforceable,” according to EPA policy. And historic usage data, the agency staff said in its documents, is not sufficient to predict how these pesticides might be used – and cause harm – in the coming 15 years.
The pesticides, particularly chlorpyrifos and malathion, are “high toxicity” for all animals, and their effect on endangered species would be both direct and indirect, via contamination of food sources, for example, the staff concluded. The EPA has separately considered banning chlorpyrifos because of potential harm to humans.
Agency records show repeated contacts in early 2017 by the pesticide industry with administration officials. Among those targeted, the emails show, was Daniel Jorjani, a top Interior Department lawyer who had spent six years working for groups connected to billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
Aaron Hobbs, a onetime lobbyist for CropLife, the leading pesticide industry trade association, who now works for an affiliate of the industryfunded group, reached out to Jorjani and invited him to an April 2017 meeting with industry officials to discuss the endangered species effort – shortly after sending the letter asking the agency to kill the Fish and Wildlife Service’s work. He followed up again in July in an attempt to set up another meeting.
Top officials from the EPA and Interior and Agriculture departments began a series of meetings in June 2017, often involving representatives from the White House.
Even as these meetings were taking place, staff members inside the Fish and Wildlife Service were wrapping up the enormous task of assessing the threat presented by these pesticides, email records show.
A photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a family of San Joaquin kit foxes. Decades ago the species inhabited large parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley, but most of those fox populations are now gone, in part because of pesticides.