The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday announced “increased protections for the nation’s two million agricultural workers and their families.” The protection is being put in place as new revision of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standards (AWPS).

In a doomsday sentence suggesting that anyone who has come close to pesticides have been in danger of all types of health concerns, the EPA announcement contends, “Each year, thousands of potentially preventable pesticide exposure incidents are reported that lead to sick days, lost wages and medical bills but with changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard the risk of injury or illness resulting from contact with pesticides on farms and in forests, nurseries and greenhouses can be reduced.”

The revisions to the AWPS will go into effect when published in the Federal Register within the next 60 days.

The Agricultural Retailers Association was quick to respond to the EPA announcement, even though ARA and other agricultural stakeholders had only a four-hour warning that the EPA would be announcing the new AWPS rules.

To say that leadership of ARA was upset with new rules would be a mild description. Detailed explanations, during the public comment period, of the real situation in the U.S. agricultural world was submitted by the Pesticide Policy Coalition, composed of the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Seed Trade Association, CropLife America, National Agricultural Aviation Association, National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cotton Council, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Potato Council and U.S. Apple Association. The 14-page comment letter was basically ignored in the final revision announced Tuesday.

Farm Bureau said it was examining the final revisions, which as noted were not provided to stakeholders much in advance. “Farm Bureau shares the agency’s desire to protect workers, but we are concerned that the agency is piling regulatory costs on farmers and ranchers that bear little if any relation to actual safety issues,” said Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at AFBF.

ARA wrote in its news release that “the EPA admitted it cannot quantify the public safety benefits of the new rule, nor can it conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the changes.”

The news release continued, “The case supporting the rule is entirely based on assumptions rather than data. Comments from real-world applicators and state regulators appear to have been almost completely disregarded in favor of the policy positions of advocacy groups aligned politically with the administration.”

The first news release, after the EPA announced revisions, came from a major advocacy group—Farmworker Justice. The organization apparently would have preferred even tighter, more costly regulations since its news release began by a spokesperson saying that “these changes are an important step in the right direction and will help protect the health of farmworkers and their families from pesticide overexposure.”

The Pesticide Policy Coalition in its letter prior to Tuesday’s announced revisions noted “had the agency (EPA) cited current literature, it would have acknowledged significantly improved farmworker demographics and safety since 1992; a steep and ongoing reduction in incidents of acute poisoning; and a lack of evidence of elevated levels of chronic illnesses among farmworkers.”

The entire ARA news release and link to the coalition letter, which was apparently ignored, is provided below:  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized proposed changes to the agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS) today.

In what has become standard procedure, EPA notified stakeholders approximately four hours ahead of making a press announcement, and will hold a stakeholder call after the announcement has already been made to the press. The president of the United Farm Workers joined officials from EPA and OSHA on the press call, highlighting the extent to which one advocacy group's position influenced the final rule.

The Agricultural Retailers Association believes justification for revision of WPS is based on unfounded assumptions and deliberately misleading cost analysis.

According to a detailed comment letter submitted by the Pesticide Policy Coalition, of which ARA is a member, "had the agency (EPA) cited current literature, it would have acknowledged significantly improved farmworker demographics and safety since 1992; a steep and ongoing reduction in incidents of acute poisoning; and a lack of evidence of elevated levels of chronic illnesses among farmworkers."

The PPC letter is a comprehensive analysis of technical problems with the EPA proposed rule. Most of this input has been disregarded in EPA's final rule.

"Agricultural retailers pay a lot of attention to worker safety because they care about their employees, and accidents are costly for both employees and employers," said ARA President and CEO Daren Coppock. "The final rule overlooks improvements made in worker safety by the industry over the preceding 22 years, most significantly through development and adoption of precision agriculture and drift reduction technologies. It also discounts the significant efforts of state pesticide regulators."

ARA has identified several areas of concern with the new rule:

  • Opens new doors of potential liability without demonstrating their connection to worker safety - the introduction of an "authorized representative" concept, unclear requirements on who must possess "labeling" and when, and what even constitutes the required "labeling;" and many others.
  • EPA substantially - and deliberately - underestimated the cost of the regulation. The rule increases the frequency of required training by five times and increases the amount of material that must be covered, yet EPA estimates a negligible cost to employers. EPA's new requirement would not align with industry standards for training already in place in several states.

"Industry comments submitted to EPA pointed out the error, but it does not appear to have been corrected in the final rule," Coppock said. "The real costs were provided, yet the agency stands by its artificial estimates, which suggests a deliberate disregard of the real-world cost implications of the rule."

Furthermore, the EPA has admitted it cannot quantify the public safety benefits of the new rule, nor can it conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the changes.

The case supporting the rule is entirely based on assumptions rather than data. Comments from real-world applicators and state regulators appear to have been almost completely disregarded in favor of the policy positions of advocacy groups aligned politically with the administration.

"The existing WPS was working, and under it safety trends were headed in the right direction," Coppock added. "This new WPS was not necessary based on objective safety data. Instead, the EPA assumed problems existed, invented a solution, and speculated the solution will have positive effects."

EPA's new rule imposes significant new costs and liabilities on agricultural employers with no measurable improvement in the safety trends, and no cost-benefit analysis to justify them. It is the latest in a string of announcements from the current administration where political science has triumphed over objective science and economics.