Ruling said to affect only waterways with endangered fish

PACIFIC COUNTY - It may be close to Thanksgiving before West Coast farmers hear from a federal judge on buffer zones designed to prevent pesticides from leaching into salmon-bearing streams.

At a hearing Thursday in Seattle, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour asked the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental, pesticide and farming industry groups to begin negotiations on the terms of the order that he expects to issue this fall. Coughenour gave the groups six weeks to negotiate, but did not set a specific date to reconvene in the courtroom.

However, there was some good news: Plaintiffs in the suit indicated that Willapa-area rivers and streams - which aren't home to endangered salmon - wouldn't be subject to buffer regulations.

Previously, environmental groups had asked for restrictions on eight pesticides used by homeowners in urban areas. The judge instead appeared to favor providing educational materials at point of sale regarding the effects of pesticides on salmon.

Fight for survivalFor cranberry farmers, the wait is painful. In an industry that has struggled with a years-long dip in market prices, any threat to farming quickly turns into a fight for survival.

"We're just patiently waiting, hopeful that the judge is reasonable," said Merri Erickson, a Grayland cranberry grower and head of the Washington Cranberry Alliance.

But growers are pleased that the judge suggested mediation rather than issuing an order on buffers.

"It allows us to finish harvest before the rules are implemented," said Bandon, Ore., grower Carol Russell.

The prescribed buffers are expected to stifle fruit and vegetable farming in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

The hearing follows last year's court decision that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to determine the impacts of 54 pesticide active ingredients on salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Plaintiffs in the suit are the Washington Toxics Coalition, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The plaintiffs sued the EPA because the agency proceeded with registration on 54 pesticide ingredients, even though the EPA predicted that these ingredients would pose some harm to salmon.

Because the EPA did not research the pesticides further, the agency violated the Endangered Species Act, the judge found.

The EPA is now reviewing each of these ingredients to determine whether permanent restrictions are needed because of damage to salmon or their habitat.

The 25 pesticides that have not yet gone through the EPA's assessment will require buffers until the agency's audit is completed, according to Aimee Code, water quality coordinator for NCAP.

If the EPA moves quickly on its analysis of the pesticides, the interim buffers won't be needed for long, said Glen Spain, who heads the PCFFA.

However, in an interview earlier this month, he said that he anticipates the EPA's consultations to take three to four years.

Farmers have alternative pesticides that they can use to control problems on their land, Spain said. He added that the economic threat to farmers is low.

"I frankly don't see that it will have that significant of an impact on agriculture," Spain said.

Code urged those following the suit to avoid classifying it as a "environmentalists versus industry" case.

"What the point of our case was, this had already gotten bad," Code said, adding that the EPA displayed 13 years of negligence in examining the effects of 54 pesticides on salmon.

New pesticides are being registered all the time, Code said, and farmers would fall deeper into trouble if the EPA wasn't forced to keep up with its audits.

"This is finally a step in the right direction," Code said.

But cranberry farmers, who have weathered a seven-year dip in cranberry prices, are worried that further regulations will be costly. Many cranberry farmers have taken second jobs to make ends meet, Erickson said.

Earlier this summer, cranberry growers on the Peninsula feared that irrigation ditches bordering their bogs would be subject to the plaintiffs' suggested minimum of 20-yard buffers for ground pesticide applications.

Where pesticides are applied aerially, the plaintiffs are seeking 100-yard buffers from salmon-bearing creeks and streams.

Now, a compromise on buffer widths may not be reached until well into this year's cranberry harvest, which takes place from mid-September to early November.

Judge Coughenour favors implementing the buffers this fall during a "clean space" between farmers' harvests, Code said. She added that finding a hiatus for farmers in four states is "going to be difficult."

Good news for Willapa farmersThe hearing did give good news to Willapa-area cranberry growers worried about the types of water bodies that would be required to bear buffers.

"The Toxics Coalition did indicate that they want this ruling to affect only the areas where fish are present," said Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, one of the intervenors in the suit.

The Willapa area shouldn't be affected because many of the rivers and streams there aren't home for endangered and threatened salmon. But, Hansen added, farmers adjacent to the Columbia River or its tributaries would be affected.

Cranberry farmers in Bandon, Ore., weren't let off easy. Many farms border streams that flow into the Coquille River, home to endangered coastal coho salmon.

Russell said that Bandon growers use pesticides safely.

"The Bandon fish hatchery is both above and below cranberry growers," she said. "There has never been a kill yet."

In addition, Russell isn't counting on the Washington Toxics Coalition's word that buffers will affect only salmon-bearing streams.

"If they're saying salmon-bearing [streams] only, what does that include? One or two salmon every year? The time that they're actually there? The possibility of salmon?" Russell said. "Unless we see it in writing, you never know what their intent is."

Russell estimates that 40 percent of Oregon growers will be impacted by the proposed buffers.

"It's still up in the air, but I assume that there are going to be buffers," Russell said. "I don't see the Washington Toxics Coalition not putting in buffers."

Currently, cranberries are an $8.5 million business in Oregon, down from $21.7 million before prices dipped in the late 1990s.

Pesticide impacts on salmon are also up for debate.

According to Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, pesticides cause"insignificant" impacts to water bodies. "It's really minute," she said.

Yet, Erika Schreder, a scientist with the Washington Toxics Coalition, said that pesticides have short- and long-term effects on salmon.

The active ingredients in pesticides can harm salmon's reproductive and immune systems, and sense of smell, she said. They can also harm fish habitat and food supply.

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