On January 6, 2016, a complaint was filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California by a coalition of U.S. beekeepers, farmers, and affiliated non-government organizations (Petitioners). The Petitioners allege that EPA has allowed “the ongoing sale and use of unregistered pesticide products” because, they claim, EPA has incorrectly construed seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticides to be “treated articles” exempt from registration under 40 C.F.R. § 152.25(a). Petitioners argue that a 2013 guidance document prepared by EPA for enforcement personnel investigating bee incidents improperly expanded the scope of the “treated article” exemption and was in effect an unlawful rule issued without prior notice and comment.
According to Petitioners, seeds coated with neonicotinoid pesticides should not be considered eligible for the “treated article” exemption because the neonicotinoid pesticide in the coating acts systemically to protect the growing plants after the seeds germinate, rather than to protect the seeds themselves. Based on this analysis, Petitioners argue that each coated seed product is in fact a separate unregistered pesticide that has not been properly evaluated under FIFRA. Petitioners also argue that pesticide loss from these coated seeds has a variety of collateral environmental effects, including effects on pollinators that EPA has not appropriately considered.
The Petitioners have requested that the District Court provide declaratory relief stating that seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticides are not eligible for the treated article exemption. Petitioners also request that the District Court enjoin EPA from: (1) allowing any new unregistered neonicotinoid-coated seeds of any crops; and (2) allowing any new unregistered seeds of any crops if they are coated with other systemic insecticides that cause pesticidal effects extending beyond the coated seed and plant itself.
The potential consequences of a reviewing court finding that EPA has improperly construed or expanded the “treated article” exemption by including seeds coated with neonicotinoid insecticides are of significant concern. Such a construction could require that EPA separately register each type of coated seed under FIFRA, regardless of whether EPA adequately evaluated the risks associated with seed treatment when each insecticide was first registered for this use. EPA could seek dismissal of some or all of the Petitioner’s claims on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that the risks and benefits of seed treatment were considered at the time each neonicotinoid insecticide was registered for such use, and that the Petitioners should have sought prior review of those registration decisions in the Court of Appeals within the applicable 60-day window. EPA may also object to the apparent failure of the Petitioners to exhaust their administrative remedies before challenging the policy embodied in the purported “rule,” and also to the Petitioners’ extensive reliance on extra-record evidence.