Commercial fishermen and environmental groups could file lawsuits against the Trump administration, if it fails to follow a recommendation by one of its own agencies to protect salmon, sturgeon, orca and other endangered species in the Pacific north-west.
It did so after a long court fight. Environmental groups sought publication of the opinion while the Trump administration, supported by pesticide manufacturers, pushed for a two-year delay.
The 3,700-page federal report was issued on 29 December. The scientists warned that the widely used pesticides pose a threat, through run-off into rivers and oceans, to dozens of endangered and threatened species.
They also made detailed recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for new restrictions on how and where the pesticides can be sprayed.
In March 2017, however, the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed an Obama-era effort to ban the use of chlorpyrifos on fruits and vegetables. Peer-reviewed academic studies have found the pesticide can hinder the development of children’s brains, even at tiny levels of exposure.
“Pacific salmon are the life blood of our industry and the orca in the north-west depend on them too,” Glen Spain, north-west regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), told the Guardian.
“There should be plenty for everyone. There used to be.”
Spain said he represents a $1bn industry which has lost thousands of jobs as salmon stocks have shrunk, due to overdevelopment of dams and the use of dangerous pesticides.
“The Trump administration is supposed to be about jobs, isn’t it?” he said.
Spain said the PCFFA was talking to lawmakers but would consider suing the EPA if it did not at the least follow the main recommendations of the NMFS and restrict pesticides.
“Salmon have been waiting four decades for relief from this poison in many of our rivers,” he said.
A number of environmental groups are fighting deregulation of pesticides by the EPA. Advocates are also considering legal action to push for the implementation of recommendations in the NMFS report, a source told the Guardian.
In waters off Seattle, a unique and endangered resident population, the Puget Sound orca, is struggling.
“There are only 76 individuals in this orca community and they lost eight in the last 18 months, which is a devastating rate,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
“The population is starving and is being poisoned by these toxins.”
Studies have shown that even low levels of pesticide run-off can impair the growth, swimming ability and reproductive systems of salmon.
Bogaard said the famed wild salmon population of the Pacific north-west was now at about 5% or 6% of historic levels.
Organophosphorus gas was developed as a chemical weapon before the second world war. Since the 1960s, Dow Chemical, based in Midland, Michigan, has been selling chlorpyrifos for spraying on citrus fruits, apples, cherries and other crops.
The Associated Press reported last April that lawyers representing Dow and two other companies wrote to three Trump cabinet secretaries saying academic studies being used by the government on the risks of pesticides were flawed.
Dow, which wrote a $1m check to help underwrite Trump’s inauguration, said in a statement then it operated “with full respect for human health and the environment”.
CropLife America, an industry group that lobbies Congress and federal agencies on pesticide regulations, said in a statement the latest NMFS review “has the potential to create exaggerated and unfounded concerns regarding threatened and endangered species”.