A federal appeals court has told the Environmental Protection Agency where it can stick its sulfoxaflor.

Sulfoxaflor is a neonicotinoid pesticide, a class of pesticides known to cause nerve damage in bees. In 2013, sulfoxaflor won approval from the EPA for use on a range of crops, including cotton, soybean, strawberries, potatoes and other vegetables.

Italian honeybee. (Photo Credit: Ken Thomas)

Italian honeybee. (Photo Credit: Ken Thomas)

Citing the fact that the EPA actually found the pesticide to be “highly toxic to honey bees, and other insect pollinators,” the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, along with a group of national beekeeping organizations, sued the agency to withdraw sulfoxaflor from its registration.

In its ruling on Thursday, the federal appeals court struck down the EPA’s approval of the pesticide, stating in its opinion that said approval was made despite “inconclusive or insufficient data on the effects of sulfoxaflor on brood development and long-term colony health.”

Because the honey bee colony “is an interdependent ‘superorganism,’” the court wrote, “the effect of an insecticide on one type of bee can ripple through the hive.”

In its approval of the pesticide, the EPA did not make a significant attempt to obtain data on sulfoxaflor’s hive-level effect. As Mother Jones points out, “because of major gaps in research on the new chemical’s effect on bees, the EPA decided to grant sulfoxaflor ‘conditional registration’ and ordered Dow [the company marketing the pesticide] to provide more research.”

That was in January 2013. Yet the EPA approved sulfoxaflor just a few months later without ever receiving the research from Dow. This was a big no-no for the court. “[T]he record reveals that Dow never completed the requested additional studies,” it states in its opinion.

Circuit Judge N.R. Smith penned this addendum to the opinion: “I am inclined to believe the EPA…decided to register sulfoxaflor unconditionally in response to public pressure for the product and attempted to support its decision retroactively with studies it had previously found inadequate.” When the Judge later calls the action “capricious,” it comes off as a polite euphemism.

Greg Loarie, an attorney for EarthJustice who argued the case, told Mother Jones that this ruling sets an important precedent for future neonic pesticide cases, requiring the EPA to assess data of pesticide’s effects not just on individual bees but also the entire hive.

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