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Bush Wants Continued Use of Ozone-Depleting Pesticide in Agriculture

U.S. to Seek Waiver on Weed Killer Harmful to Ozone Layer

January 29, 2003
New York Times
By ANDREW C. REVKIN


The Bush administration is considering seeking scores of exemptions for industries that want to keep using an ozone-depleting pesticide that is to be banned by 2005 under an international treaty.

Environmental campaigners say the result, should all the exemptions be granted, would be years of further delay in undoing damage to the ozone layer from decades of emissions of the pesticide, methyl bromide, and other similar compounds.

Experts said that the exemptions from the ban would undermine the Montreal Protocol, a 15-year-old pact protecting the ozone layer and widely perceived as the most effective environmental treaty ever negotiated.

The White House is hurriedly reviewing options because it faces a Friday deadline for forwarding proposed exemptions to an international environmental body that administers the treaty.

Under a timetable set by the treaty, industrialized countries have steadily decreased use of methyl bromide
since 1999 and are to end all use by 2005, except in situations where there are no effective substitutes or
markets would be disrupted.

But more than 50 applications for "critical-use exemptions" have been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, by agricultural groups and businesses as varied as chrysanthemum and strawberry growers, flour millers, universities, and golf-course groomers.

If all or most of the exemptions were granted, American use of the pesticide could rise sharply in 2005, exceeding levels now allowed under the treaty and federal law.

A senior federal official involved with assessing the proposed exemptions to the chemical ban said that most of the agricultural users have legitimate worries.

"I think they have a case for needing it," the official said. "The Montreal Protocol has expressed in this
exemption the notion that there are cases where the impact of losing the chemical is so great that they won't force the ban on people."

In a related effort, the American Farm Bureau, Florida officials and other lobbying groups have written members of Congress this week seeking bill language that would allow use of methyl bromide to increase 20 percent from the amount currently allowed.

Environmental groups assert that the chemical needs to be banned and the treaty honored. They are pressing the White House to winnow the exemption requests greatly, pointing to some businesses that are seeking to increase their use of the chemical.

"If the Bush administration abandons the phase-out of methyl bromide, the safer alternatives will wither on the vine, and the hole in the ozone layer will keep growing," said David Doniger, an expert in international
environmental policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Government and administration officials said they would not limit the number of exemptions submitted just to ensure that use of the gas continued to decline.

Methyl bromide is one of a variety of chemicals that are being phased out under the treaty because they break down the high-altitude veil of ozone molecules that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays.

The shield had diminished significantly by the 1980's, and still disappears almost entirely over large areas of both poles in certain seasons.

Scientists say that continuing reductions in the dominant ozone-depleting compounds, chlorofluorocarbons, should repair the damage in a few decades.

Methyl bromide is a much more potent destroyer of ozone, molecule for molecule, than are chlorofluorocarbons, but unlike those compounds does not persist long in the air and is also much rarer. Over all, scientists have estimated that it accounts for no more than 7 percent of the total erosion of the ozone layer.

Once submitted, any exemptions sought by the United States and other industrialized countries will be reviewed this spring by an international committee of three dozen experts, including American government scientists.

American officials said they were concerned that the isolation of the United States on other international
issues, including the Kyoto climate treaty and a possible attack on Iraq, could result in the exemptions being rejected whether or not they were justified. There is no appeal process under the treaty.

Companies producing substitutes contend that any significant exemptions will simply delay shifts toward
other methods of controlling pests.

Methyl bromide is a toxic gas that has been used since the 1960's to sterilize soils, fumigate grain-milling
operations and treat exports and imports to kill invasive pests. It kills weeds, insects, nematodes and all manner of other pests, allowing farmers and nursery owners to work on fields that are a biological clean slate.

Under the Montreal treaty, industrialized countries agreed to a 25 percent reduction below the amount used in 1991 starting in 1999; a 50 percent drop from that level starting in 2002; a 70 percent reduction starting in 2003; and finally a total ban starting in 2005. (Developing countries have a 10-year delay before they must stop using the gas.)

Some countries, like Australia and Spain, plan to join the United States in seeking many exemptions, according to American officials involved in the issue.

But government officials of other countries, including Britain, said they planned to strictly limit their proposed exemptions to ensure that overall use of the gas continued to fall.

"A critical use should be a critical use," said one European government official. The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, noted that exemptions granted for other ozone-depleting substances were extraordinarily limited. One allows continued use of banned chlorofluorocarbons, for example, in powering asthma inhalers. Methyl chloroform, another banned chemical, is still allowed for cleaning the O-rings on the space shuttle's booster rockets.

Applications from American companies include some that are very small, like Stroope Bee and Honey Co. of Alvin, Tex., which wants to continue using about 400 pounds of the chemical in 2005 and beyond to prevent moths from attacking honeycombs.

"I know of nothing else that will even come close to controlling the greater wax moth in stored honeycombs," the business owner, Garland Stroope said in his application.

But they also include requests for large, and increasing, uses of the chemical.

In ALabama, Auburn University is seeking to use 542,408 pounds of methyl bromide a year on 1,600 acres where it plants tree seedlings, saying it had found "no possible alternatives."

The California Grape and Tree Fruit League, in Fresno, has submitted a request for its membership to use 1,579,500 pounds of methyl bromide annually after 2005, although its members typically used less than 650,000 pounds of the chemical in the late 1990's.

In interviews, several government officials involved with compiling the applications said there were other important issues to consider when weighing the importance of the chemical to a particular business.

Mexico and other developing countries, which compete with American farmers in fruit and vegetable trade, are exempt from the methyl bromide ban for another decade, officials said.

They also use cheap labor to clear fields of weeds that American growers clear with methyl bromide, and labor in this country is too costly for that task. "Methyl bromide helps level the playing field," a senior official in the Department of Agriculture said.

Marco González, the executive secretary of the United Nations secretariat that administers the Montreal Protocol, said he was confident that the international review of exemptions from the methyl bromide ban would be fair and not roll back efforts to repair the ozone layer.

"The Montreal Protocol so far has been a success story and is paving the away to other conventions," Mr. González said. "We don't see any reason why progress and success should not continue."


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