Environmentalists fight broader use of Dow Agro herbicide

Environmentalists are contesting the federal government's decision to allow more widespread use of a new version of a popular weed killer to be used on genetically modified corn and soybeans.

Motions filed Monday in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's handling of a 2,4-D weed killer called Enlist Duo, a new version of the popular herbicide used since the 1940s. It's aimed at use with seeds that are engineered to resist the herbicide, so farmers can spray the fields after the plants emerge and kill the weeds while leaving crops unharmed.

Enlist is made by Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of five environmental groups, including the Center for Food Safety, claim in separate lawsuits that it could endanger wildlife and public health. The groups first sued after the EPA in October approved the herbicide's use in six states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The latest motions were filed after the EPA decided last month to allow its use in nine more states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

"Our concern is the same as we've had all along, which is that this is a powerful chemical that has demonstrated harm to human health and to wildlife, and the EPA has simply not done an adequate job of assessing it before letting it loose," said Paul H. Achitoff, an attorney representing five of the groups.

Demand for Enlist promises to be strong because many weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide commonly used on genetically modified corn and soybeans now. Enlist includes a combination of both the new version of 2,4-D and glyphosate. Groups that unsuccessfully lobbied the EPA to prevent its expanded use say they are concerned about 2,4-D's toxic effects and the potential for it to drift.

Dow Agro said that the new version of Enlist has been engineered to solve potential problems, like drift before and after the herbicide hits the plant.

"Dow AgroSciences is confident that EPA thoroughly reviewed this long-awaited new agricultural technology before registering it for use by American farmers," the company said in a written statement. "We support EPA’s registration decision and are confident that it will prevail in court."

The EPA, which has said previously that the herbicide meets safety standards, said in written statement Monday that it would review the petition and "respond appropriately." 

But Sylvia Fallon, the wildlife director for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog posted on the group's website Monday that the use of "increasingly toxic pesticides" is "unsustainable."

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