U.S. Pesticide Stockpile Under Scrutiny at World Ozone Meeting in India

President George W. Bush's administration is seeking world permission to produce thousands of tons of a pesticide that an international treaty banned nearly two years ago, even though U.S. companies already have huge stockpiles of the chemical.

SAN MATEO, Calif. — President George W. Bush's administration is seeking world permission to produce thousands of tons of a pesticide that an international treaty banned nearly two years ago, even though U.S. companies already have huge stockpiles of the chemical.

Methyl bromide has been used for decades by farmers to help grow plump, sweet strawberries, robust peppers and other crops, but it also depletes the Earth's protective ozone layer. The United States and other countries signed a 1987 treaty promising to end its use by 2005.

Americans failed to meet the Montreal Protocol deadline and since have been getting annual exemptions allowing methyl bromide's continued use on certain crops in specific states. Other nations have sought far smaller exemptions.

The latest exemption requests are being considered this week at an international meeting in New Delhi, India.

Though smaller than previous years, the amount of methyl bromide the United States wants approved for 2008 worries some allies, especially given the existing stockpiles.

The U.S. request "is certainly undermining the spirit of the Montreal Protocol and setting a bad example for other countries, especially developing countries, and their aspirations to comply with the ban," Swedish delegate Husamuddin Ahmadzai said. "Everybody is concerned with the issue."

This year marks the first time that other nations, trying to curtail new methyl bromide production, have seen the size of the U.S. stockpiles.

The Bush administration says the inventory is needed to ease growers' adjustment to the methyl bromide phase-out that was ordered 14 years ago. Importantly, they say, both stockpiles and production are steadily declining.

Each year, countries seek treaty exemptions for so-called critical needs. U.S. officials want allocations for growers of tomatoes, strawberries, peppers and other crops who mostly use the potent chemical to destroy pests before planting. The restrictions have pushed many farmers to switch to other pesticides, but the United States says the substitutes don't work in all cases.

Negotiators met privately Thursday to tackle exemptions for 2008. Dissension emerged in a technical committee report that recommended substantially cutting back the U.S. request for 6,415 metric tons (7,071 US tons), an amount greater than the other nations' combined.

The Bush administration says the stockpiles existed before the 2005 ban and thus are not subject to the same restrictions as newly produced methyl bromide.

"The U.S. position is that we are appropriately managing the strategic reserve," said Drusilla Hufford, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's stratospheric protection division. "We've drawn it down every year."

She said the United States has spent $150 million (euro117.5 million) on alternative pesticides and has achieved a 75 percent reduction from 1991 methyl bromide levels.

"There's a lot going on, but in order to continue the progress so you don't have supply shocks or sudden unanticipated changes in the market, we found in the past that it is useful and helpful to the cause of ozone protection to have that reserve," she said.

Environmental advocates say the stockpiles far surpass what is needed for a market cushion. They say the U.S. approach undercuts the goal of limiting methyl bromide because stockpiles can be used to meet demands that the treaty has rejected.

"Imagine if a country used this approach for narcotics. It would be as though we strictly controlled doctors' and patients' access to morphine for essential medical needs, like pain relief, but let anyone else take as much as they want from the storeroom," said David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In New Delhi, he urged treaty countries to block further U.S. production.

Former EPA Administrator William Reilly said the current U.S. position, 14 years after methyl bromide was added to the treaty's target list, undercuts world efforts to protect Earth's ozone.

"The point of the Montreal Protocol was to get us out of ozone depleters and provide a certain transition, with some small exemptions" for special needs, he said. "We provided for that, but a 14-year transition is a little hard to justify for mainline uses."

The EPA disclosed in September that the methyl bromide inventory, owned by 35 companies, reached 9,974 metric tons (10,995 US tons) at the beginning of this year, down from 16,422 metric tons (18,102 US tons) two years earlier.

U.S. farmers are allowed 8,063 metric tons (8,888 US tons) this year under treaty exemptions, of which 6,927 metric tons (7,636 US tons) could be newly manufactured or imported. The rest would be drawn down from stockpiles.

Source: Associated Press

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