Critics of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing re-review of the commonly used pesticide atrazine and pending lawsuits against its makers say the potential ramifications could be staggering if the pesticide was ever banned.
"The effects on agriculture and the economy would be enormous," said Ted Frank, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy research group.
"A huge chunk of the country's grain production is reliant on atrazine to maximize yields," he said.
Frank criticized the lawsuits pending in Illinois state and federal courts as "meritless," considering the EPA in 2006 concluded that atrazine did not pose a health hazard. Still, Frank speculated that there is no reason to believe the potential members of the class of plaintiffs in the litigation couldn't spread across the nation.
The lawsuits were filed by a number of water systems that allege atrazine contamination. The firms Korein Tillery and Baron and Budd are representing the plaintiffs.
Baron and Budd on its Web site says, "1,200 public drinking water systems are currently contaminated with atrazine, and that number is expected to grow as the product's use continues unchecked." The firm says it's costly to filter out the pesticide.
The firm characterizes the legal action as having the potential to be "a harbinger of detection and clean-up of America's public water supply."
According to the EPA, a 2009 review of data from water systems nationwide showed no violations of the acceptable amount of atrazine in the systems. The EPA's maximum contamination level for atrazine is 3 parts per billion.
"Just another example of trial lawyers putting profits ahead of people," Frank said.
Kurtis B. Reeg, the lawyer representing atrazine-maker Syngenta in lawsuits filed in Madison County and in federal court, called more legal action against atrazine harmful to farmers and a "misstep," considering that an Alabama judge dismissed a similar action in 1999 as unnecessary.
"Everyone should bear in mind that if a 150-pound adult drank literally thousands of gallons of water with atrazine at three parts-per-billion every day for 70 years, she still would not reach the exposure level at which no adverse impact has been detected in the laboratory," Reeg said in the statement.
Reeg continued: "We know these communities are strapped for cash, and suing companies to upgrade their decades-old water systems may seem like an easy way to raise money, but it only harms local farmers who rely on these safely-regulated crop protection tools for their livelihood and to help cost-effectively feed a quickly growing consumer public."
"Both the Illinois and Federal lawsuits fly in the face of good regulatory policy, good science and good common sense," Syngenta spokesman Steven Goldsmith said. "First of all, let me say these lawsuits are without merit, because the plaintiffs are asking for what they already have. The irony of this litigation is that the water districts certify that their water meets stringent federal and state safety standards, yet have sued atrazine manufacturers on the premise that the water is unsafe, even as they continue to sell it to customers."
Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, Kansas Corn Commission and Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association said the lawsuits have the potential to shackle farming.
"These are not just lawsuits against atrazine," White said. "It is about whether the EPA has the right to establish safety standards for anything in water beyond hydrogen and oxygen. But to be clear, if the courts were to decide that they don't regarding atrazine, agriculture will be shackled with lawsuits from almost everything they do. Water systems will soon become defendants when they get sued for their disinfectant byproducts, which are only deemed safe because of EPA standards. It should be noted that certification is a long ways from getting a ruling against atrazine."
Meanwhile, a study released last week by Don L. Coursey, an economist at the University of Chicago, predicts that a potential EPA ban on the use of atrazine could undo any economic recovery efforts the federal government has implemented, and ultimately lead to lost jobs.
"Regulation moves the margins of profitability," Coursey says in the study. "Regulatory uncertainty ripples through the economy to distant and unexpected quarters. The uncertainty created by unanticipated regulatory review puts research, development and capital spending on hold. An ill-founded result can devastate jobs for no reason."
Coursey estimates that up to 48,000 jobs related to the corn-growing industry would disappear if the EPA ended up banning the use of atrazine. Coursey believes that additional job losses would occur in the sugar cane and sorghum industries.
"The range is wide because we have never before banned a product on which so many depend and for which suitable replacements have a wide variety of prices and application regimes," Coursey states.
Banning atrazine could increase farmers' costs per acre by up to $58, Coursey estimates. That cost would undoubtedly be borne by the consumer through increased food prices.
Corn farmers would "suffer lost income, yields, certainty, reliability and predictability" if atrazine were banned, Coursey says.
"Unintended and unforeseeable consequences, such as weed escapes from substitute protection programs, could have serious and lasting effects, which costs are not included here," Coursey states.
One consequence, according to Coursey, and curious when talking about the pending lawsuits, is that banning atrazine and substituting another pesticide would increase sedimentary runoff into streams and rivers.
"Atrazine makes conservation tillage possible for many corn growers, keeping soil on the land and out of our water," Coursey states. "Losing this societal benefit will bring incalculable costs to community water systems, meaning average Americans."
Coursey further questions the motives behind EPA's re-review of the pesticide.
"Many consider atrazine, a synthetic organic compound, to be the most studied such molecule on the planet," Coursey states.
He criticizes the government for caving to activist groups and media. He cites a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council calling for a ban on atrazine and a New York Times article that cites research concluding that even low levels of atrazine in drinking water is dangerous.
Additionally, Coursey blames President Barack Obama's administration for playing politics with the re-review of atrazine.
"Every incoming administration feels a need to differentiate itself from its predecessor," Coursey states. "In the regulatory field, this can amount to 'righting' perceived or real 'wrongs.' It is also normal for friends of any new administration to present their list of items on which they seek official vindication. This is why the safest course for the public – and the economy – is to maintain predictability by keeping sound science at the heart of regulatory decisions, not activist claims and heated rhetoric."
Coursey says that the re-review of atrazine is nothing more than an effort to satisfy "implacable activists" and "expresses wanton indifference to our need for economic recovery."
Jere White said further regulation on atrazine would set a precedent for the EPA.
"Should EPA further restrict atrazine after it concludes its study, it would indicate a massive departure from the science based standards that have been the basis for EPA decisions in the past," White said. "No product would be safe, as no other product has such a wealth of scientific review confirming its continued safe use."
Ted Frank at the Manhattan Institute said it's not only the United States economy that would be jeopardized by a potential ban on atrazine.
"The price spike in grains in 2007-2008 caused by the rise in the price of oil and world biofuel policy is blamed for a world food crisis that caused political unrest in dozens of nations and was responsible for who knows how many thousands of starvation deaths," Frank said. "It could happen again."