What’s at Stake
Earthjustice successfully challenged the U.S. EPA’s approval of a toxic pesticide called vinclozolin.
In 1997, Earthjustice, working on behalf of a number of farmworker and environmental groups, challenged EPA's authorization of the use of vinclozolin, a dangerous fungicide linked with serious birth defects and other health maladies.
In 1997, Erik Nicholson, who worked for Pineros Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, an Oregon farmworkers union, learned that workers were spraying the pesticide vinclozolin on snap beans grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. These beans were grown for local packaging plants that produced frozen green beans. Historically, workers picked the snap beans. However, in the 1970s, Oregon growers shifted to bush snap beans that could be machine harvested. Since the machines can’t distinguish between beans with mold and those without mold, the growers began using fungicides to kill the mold. When the beans became resistant to the first generation of pesticides, the growers looked for a more potent fungicide. Vinclozolin became the pesticide of choice.
However, the growers faced an obstacle to using vinclozolin since the EPA had not determined that vincolozolin was safe for use on snap beans. In response to growers’ demands, EPA nonetheless allowed growers to use vinclozolin on an emergency basis not for just 1–2 years, but for 14 years in a row. Earthjustice went to court to block another emergency approval because EPA regulations restrict emergency approvals to more than 3 successive years. In response, EPA hastily gave its stamp approval for use of this pesticide on snap beans.
EPA acted so quickly that it skipped over a crucial step. It had not decided that it would be safe for people to eat beans with residues of vinclozolin. It is illegal for EPA to allow growers to spray a pesticide on beans unless EPA has decided that it is safe to eat beans with these residues. We went to court again and again EPA responded by rushing through its food safety finding.
EPA faced a fundamental problem. It had sidestepped the food safety standards that Congress had just enacted in 1996. It had not ensured that the beans would be safe for children to eat under the new standards. Again we challenged EPA’s action.
This challenge became a sparring match with EPA. Each time we highlighted a shortcoming, EPA would go back and make a new decision dropping vinclozolin uses. We pointed out that EPA had not added up all the residues of vinclozolin on snap beans and all of the other fruits and vegetables on which vinclozolin was used. EPA then added up the residues, found the food risks too high, and canceled some of the uses. We then challenged EPA’s failure to account for the sexual developments caused to male offspring. EPA then lowered the allowable residues for other uses. Finally, in 2001, EPA decided vinclozolin was too harmful to be on our food and it phased out uses on all U.S.-grown food.
Earthjustice represented Pineros Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group in this litigation.