California sued over pesticide effects in 'pristine' Sierra

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- High in the most popular and the most remote areas of the Sierra Nevada, pesticides blown a hundred miles from Central Valley farms are wiping out threatened frogs that serve as sentinel or indicator species, a lawsuit alleged Wednesday.

"In the Central Valley you have these wind currents that go right up into the Sierra. People go up to Yosemite and Tahoe and they think this is a pristine area, we certainly aren't affecting anything up here -- but we are," said attorney Michael Graf.

He sued the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and pesticide producers on behalf of Eureka-based Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, alleging the agency isn't doing enough to protect Sierra Nevada frogs, including the species made famous by author Mark Twain.

It's the fourth in a recent series of developments alleging the same wind-blown effects, though the department said the evidence isn't conclusive.

The suit comes two weeks after researchers at California State University, Sacramento and the University of California, Davis said the wind-blown pesticides may be a cause in the decline of three Sierra frog species. They'd previously found pesticides were hurting the California red-legged frog made famous in Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

And it follows an April lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. That suit accuses the EPA of ignoring the federal Endangered Species Act by not restricting pesticides known to kill or deform the red-legged frog. The EPA denied the allegations.

The new suit filed in Sacramento County alleges the state is violating state law by not tracking the effects of wind-blown pesticides nearly a decade after the first studies showed the toxins in areas like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

Populations of the mountain yellow-legged frog, the Yosemite toad and the Sierra populations of the red-legged and foothill yellow-legged frogs have sharply declined over the last 25 years.

But while pesticides "may be one of many factors contributing to amphibian decline, there is no direct confirmed evidence that pesticide residues are a major factor in amphibian deaths, or that a reduction or elimination of pesticide residues would reverse amphibian declines," the department said in a Sept. 16 response to the environmental group.

Populations of some amphibians are declining worldwide, while other species apparently aren't affected, noted Barry Cortez, the department's pesticide registration chief. Climate change, loss of habitat, ultraviolet radiation, acid rain, increased predation or competition, and diseases all have been blamed, he wrote.

Studies show one of the eight pesticides cited by the group is no longer permitted, three haven't been found in Sierra frogs, and four have been found in a species of frog that continues to thrive, he said.

"There is increasing, but not conclusive, evidence of a link," but it may be four years before there is enough additional research to sort things out, Cortez said.

Graf's new lawsuit contends the department is violating a state law that requires the department to annually re-evaluate pesticide registrations when it can be shown that their continuing use is likely to cause a significant environmental impact.

The environmental group isn't seeking to restrict the use of pesticides now, just require a study by the department, Graf said.

Department spokesman Glenn Brank said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit itself.

The suit also names California-licensed pesticide producers Dow Agrosciences LLC, FMC Corp., Gowan Co., Zeneca Inc., Platte Chemical Co., and Syngenta Crop Protection Inc.

"California has the most restrictive and thorough registration process in the United States, so we're very concerned people are going outside the process (by turning to the courts)," said Steve Beckley, who represents the pesticide industry as president of the California Plant Health Association.


On the Net:

Californians for Alternatives to Toxics:

Department of Pesticide Regulation:

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