A national ban on chlorpyrifos — widely used in U.S. agriculture — is back on after a 2-to-1 ruling published Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to “revoke all tolerances” and “cancel all registrations” for the pesticide.

Writing for the majority, Judge Jed S. Rakoff said “over the past decade and more, the EPA has stalled on banning chlorpyrifos.” Most recently former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt denied a petition for the ban in March 2017.

Rakoff, 75, is a U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York who since 2010 has been on “senior status” and served by “designation” on the 9th Circuit panel. He was joined by Judge Jacqueline Hong-Ngoc Nguyen, 53, on the majority side of the ruling.

Judge Ferdinand Francis Fernandez, 81, was the third and dissenting member of the appeals panel. He is a “senior status” judge with the 9th Circuit who concluded the appellate court does not have jurisdiction in the matter.

“In short, I see no basis for deconstructing that carefully constructed jurisdictional scheme and thereby inviting premature attacks on matters committed to the expertise of the agency in the first instance,” Fernandez said in his dissent.

Before Thursday’s ruling, EPA’s next chlorpyrifos review would not have occurred until 2021.

Chlorpyrifos was first registered for use in the United States in 1965 by Dow Chemical to control leafage and ground insects. It was widely used on residential lawns and golf courses and as a termite control agent on structures until it was banned after about 15 years for any home use.

Agricultural use as a pesticide continued to be permitted with restrictions found on label instructions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also continued to support its use for pest management by fruit and vegetable growers.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, chlorpyrifos has been used as a part of environmentally friendly IPM (integrated pest management) programs for nearly 50 years. Chlorpyrifos is used for a wide range of crops, including alfalfa, citrus, vegetables, soybeans, almonds, and others. It also protects hundreds of thousands of acres of grass seed production, where it controls aphids, cutworms, and other pests.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Pesticide Action Network North America filed a petition in 2007, asking EPA to ban chlorpyrifos from use on crops. The EPA did not respond and the environmental watchdog groups sued in 2014 regarding the agency’s failure to act. A year later they asked the EPA to revoke all food residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos.

That action followed a 2011 Science Advisory Panel report that the 9th Circuit ruling said “found ‘persuasive’ evidence ‘that there are enduring effects on the Central Nervous System … from chlorpyrifos exposure at or above 1.0 mg/kg.” The scientific advisory panel also reported chlorpyrifos exposure is associated with adverse neurodevelopmental effects in children, including abnormal reflexes, pervasive development disorder, and attention and behavior problems.

The EPA is permitted to regulate the use of pesticides on foods under specific statutory standards of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). The Act grants the EPA a limited authority to establish tolerances for pesticides. The EPA is further subject to safety standards in exercising its authority to register pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

Writing for the majority in the appeal ruling, Rakoff said the EPA is authorized to “leave in effect a tolerance for a pesticide chemical residue in or on a food only if the Administrator determines that the tolerance is safe” — with “safe” defined to mean the EPA “has determined that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide chemical residue.”

Rakoff continued, saying the EPA ” has never made any such determination and, indeed, has itself long questioned the safety of permitting chlorpyrifos to be used within the allowed tolerances. The EPA, therefore, does not defend the 2017 Order on the merits. Instead, the EPA argues that, despite petitioners having properly-filed administrative objections to the 2017 Order more than a year ago, and despite the statutory requirement that the EPA respond to such objections “as soon as practicable,” the EPA’s utter failure to respond to the objections deprives us of jurisdiction to adjudicate whether the EPA exceeded its statutory authority in refusing to ban use of chlorpyrifos on food products.

“We hold that obtaining a response to objections before seeking review by this Court is a claim-processing rule that does not restrict federal jurisdiction, and that can, and here should, be excused. There being no other reason not to do so, we grant the petition on the merits.”

“Over nearly two decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has documented the likely adverse effects of foods containing the residue of the pesticide chlorpyrifos on the physical and mental development of American infants and children, often lasting into adulthood,” says the court ruling. “In such circumstances, the federal law commands that the EPA ban such a pesticide from use on food products unless “there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the pesticide.

“Yet, over the past decade and more, the EPA has stalled on banning chlorpyrifos, first by largely ignoring a petition properly filed pursuant to law seeking such a ban, then by temporizing in response to repeated orders by this Court to respond to the petition, and, finally, in its latest tactic, by denying outright our jurisdiction to review the ultimate denial of the petition, even while offering no defense on the merits,” Rakoff added.

“If Congress’s statutory mandates are to mean anything, the time has come to put a stop to this patent evasion.”

Rakoff was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, Ferdinand by Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and Nguyen by President Barack H. Obama.

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Photo of Dan Flynn Dan Flynn

Editor Dan Flynn is a Northern Colorado-based writer and editor with more more than 15 years of food safety experience. As a public affairs professional, he worked with government and regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. His career as a journalist included working for newspapers throughout the West, from the Black Hills to Seattle. His on-scene reporting on the collapse of the Idaho’s Teton Dam and the suicide bombing at Washington State University’s Perham Hall was carried by newspapers around the world and was recognized both times regionally by the Associated Press for Best Reporting on a Deadline. Most of the disasters he attends these days involve food illnesses.