Beginning in the winter of 2006-2007, bees began to die in - or simply disappear from - commercial hives around the US. Increasing numbers of beekeepers since then reported similar disappearances of bees, and the phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. While the exact causes of CCD are unknown, beekeepers and environmental groups have argued that the losses are due to a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide that is taken up by plants and stored in tissues as the plant grows and develops. Here's why even the pesticide manufacturers are now taking the problem seriously.
In response to the growing concern, a coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups petitioned the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 to suspend the use of certain neonicotinoids. After receiving an unsatisfactory response, the coalition sued the EPA in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on March 21, 2013. The suit, Ellis et al. v. Bradbury et al., alleges that the EPA improperly approved certain neonicotinoids for use, and demands that the court block any further use of the pesticides in the United States.
Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) 7 U.S.C.A. § 136 et seq., the EPA is supposed to control the distribution, sale and use of pesticides in the United States. It does so by requiring registration of pesticides before they can be used or distributed. It is the EPA's registration process for certain neonicotinoids that the Ellis plaintiffs attack in their complaint. Specifically, they allege that EPA failed to provide the proper public notice of the registration and changed uses of clothianidin and thiamethoxam. According to the Ellis plaintiffs, the behind closed doors process resulted in the public not having the opportunity to argue that the registration of the pesticides should be denied because of a threat of unreasonable harm to the environment.
This lawsuit comes at a time of growing scrutiny on neonicotinoids, as the New York Times has recently reported that the increased use of neonicotinoids has "roughly tracked rising bee deaths," which are responsible for pollinating up to $15 billion worth of crops in the United States. Regulators in some European Union countries have banned the use of some types of neonicotinoids, and the two top manufacturers of the pesticides have recently proposed a plan to support bee health in the EU as an effort to prevent the individual country bans in the EU from spreading to the rest of the EU.
While the impact of Ellis et al. v. Bradbury et al. has not yet unfolded, the addition of federal litigation to the political and popular debates regarding the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybee populations will almost certainly have an effect on the pesticide and agricultural industries. Stay tuned to the Periconi, LLC Environmental Law Blog for further developments in the case.