Sulfoxaflor is a systemic insecticide that works by destroying the nervous system. Insects exposed go into tremors, then spasms, then death. Unfortunately, insects exposed means essentially all insects, including bees. In fact, sulfoxaflor is particularly hard on pollinators. That’s why in 2016 the Ninth Circuit Court overruled the EPA’s approval of the pesticide. As Reuters reported at the time, the court responded to a suit by associations of beekeepers by finding that “the EPA had made an error” in ever allowing broad use of the chemical. In October of that year, the EPA issued new guidelines that restricted the use of the chemical to crops that do not attract bees, or to post-bloom periods when bees should not be attracted to fields.
But that was the pre-Trump EPA. As EcoWatch reports, in 2018 the EPA issued what it called “emergency” approvals to spray the substance that is “very highly toxic” to bee, on more than 16 million acres of crops that do attract bees. The EPA’s own inspector general found that the practice didn’t consider either the effect on the environment, or on human health.
Just as with the National Emergency Act, the EPA’s ability to allow emergency use of otherwise restricted substances is supposed to be limited. The authority is there to protect against outbreaks of insects that might spread disease or threaten the food supply.
However, neither of those things applied in this case. The 16.2 million acres sprayed was on sorghum and cotton plants across 19 states. There was no widespread threat. No new insect ravaging these crops. No emergency.
But again, just as with the National Emergency Act, the EPA’s authority in making these rulings includes a lot of leeway, with the expectation that good judgement will be involved. Instead, the EPA under Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler has been searching out reasons to issue these orders.