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Protecting Food and Water

November 16, 1987

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, also known as FIFRA, is a law with a name that is hard to remember but which must not be forgotten by Congress this session as it was in the last. Strengthening FIFRA would lower the odds that hazardous pesticides could contaminate food or water, and key votes toward that end are pending in the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Congress let slip a rare opportunity at its last session. Environmentalists and the agricultural chemical industry had negotiated amendments that would have required retesting of many pesticides that went on the market before tougher control laws were enacted. But the measure got caught in the rush before the 1986 elections and in food-industry attempts to write exemptions from other federal protective laws into the pesticide package.

Another useful attempt to extend the act is now being sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). Their measure would set deadlines for retesting pesticides, streamline procedures for banning those that are found to be hazardous, strengthen farm-worker protections, and ban importing of food with residues of pesticides banned in this country. Three issues will draw most Congressional debate:

--Whether the Environmental Protection Agency should pay pesticide manufacturers' costs of disposing of banned pesticides and reimburse them for their commercial value. That's part of the law now, and it's nonsense. It's also the reason few pesticides are banned. It could cost $200 million to ban seven of the worst chemicals. Lawmakers should be in the business of bringing sense to the budget, not busting it.

--Whether groundwater should be monitored for pesticide contaminant and pesticides banned when proved to be contaminants. Both should be.

--Whether states can be tougher on pesticide safety than the federal government. That's in the law now but attempts to preempt states are a constant threat. California's pesticide law is tougher than federal law, and Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who is on the Agriculture Committee, should vote to keep it that way.

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