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Bush administration seeks to undermine international ban on methyl bromide chemical poison

(Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Andrew C. Revkin, NY Times via The Agribusiness Examiner: The Bush administration is moving to help industries keep using a pesticide that is to be banned under an international agreement to restore the earth's protective ozone layer, several government officials say.

Administration officials say they are prepared to ask that some of the pesticide users, which include farmers and golf course operators, be exempted from the ban on the pesticide, methyl bromide, called for in 2005 under the international treaty. The officials say the exemptions are justified under the treaty's language because there are no effective substitutes to methyl bromide and businesses would be harmed.

But advocates for the environment say that if too many exemptions are granted, efforts to undo damage to the ozone layer will be set back by years. They said exemptions from the ban would generally undermine the agreement, the Montreal Protocol, a 15-year-old pact that is widely perceived as the most effective environmental treaty ever negotiated.

The debate leaves the administration caught between the demands of the industries, the obligations of the protocol, which the United States signed, and the need to limit political damage from persistent criticism of its environmental policies.

The White House has until tomorrow to decide how many exemptions to request from the international environmental body that administers the treaty, the Ozone Secretariat of the United Nations Environment Program.

Fifty-six requests for exemptions have been made to the administration, totaling about 26 million pounds of methyl bromide. Senior government officials said that while no decision had been made on how many requests to submit to the United Nations committee, they saw no reason to limit the number as long as each was justified.

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.

The 56 applications for "critical-use exemptions" that have been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency are from agricultural groups and businesses as varied as chrysanthemum and strawberry growers, flour millers, universities, and golf-course groomers. The applications are at epa.gov/spdpublc /mbr/cue_summaries.html.

A senior federal official involved with assessing the proposed exemptions said that most of the agricultural users had legitimate reasons.

"I think they have a case for needing it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "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."

Some countries plan to join the United States in seeking many exemptions, including Australia and Spain. But government officials in other countries, including Britain, said they planned to strictly limit their proposed exemptions to insure that overall use of the gas continued to fall.

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

In a related effort, the American Farm Bureau, Florida State officials and other lobbying groups wrote members of Congress this week seeking an amendment that would allow the use of methyl bromide to rise 20% from the amount currently permitted under federal law and the treaty.

Environmental groups say the chemical needs to be banned and the treaty honored. They are pressing the White House to greatly reduce the exemption requests, pointing to some businesses that are seeking to increase, not simply maintain, 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. Companies producing substitutes contend that any significant exemptions will simply delay shifts toward other methods of controlling pests.

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. This 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 the continued reductions in the use of the ozone-depleting compounds, dominated by chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's, should lead to restoration of the layer later in the century.

Methyl bromide is a much more potent destroyer of ozone, molecule for molecule, than are CFC's, but unlike those compounds does not persist long in the air and is also much rarer. Over all, scientists have estimated 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 a technical panel consisting of three dozen experts, including American government scientists. The panel will make recommendations to the Ozone Secretariat, which represents the interests of the 160 signers of the treaty, who make the final decision.

Administration officials said they were concerned that the isolation of the United States on other international issues, including the Kyoto climate treaty and the possible attack on Iraq, could result in the exemptions being rejected even if they are justified.

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.

Under the Montreal treaty, industrialized countries agreed to a 25% reduction below the amount used in 1991 starting in 1999; a 50% drop, from that level starting in 2002; a 70% reduction starting in 2003; and finally the 100% ban starting in 2005. The United States has been meeting its reduction goals set out in the treaty. (Developing countries have a ten-year delay before they must stop using the gas.)

Applications from American companies include some that are very small, like that from Stroope Bee and Honey Company of Alvin, Texas, which seeks 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 honey combs," said Garland Stroope, the business owner, in his application. But they also include requests for large, and increasing, uses of the chemical.

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

The California Grape & 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 are other important issues to consider when weighing the importance of the chemical to a particular business.

Mexico is among countries that compete with American farmers in fruit and vegetable trade that are exempt from the methyl bromide ban for another decade, officials said. These countries also use cheap labor to clear fields of weeds that American growers clear with methyl bromide. Labor in this country is too costly for that task. "Methyl bromide helps level the playing field," said a senior Department of Agriculture official.

Marco Gonzalez, the executive secretary of 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 way to other conventions," Mr. Gonzalez said. "We don't see any reason why progress and success should not continue."