U.S. demand for methyl bromide blocks ozone accord

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 14, 2003 (ENS): International ozone negotiations foundered today on insistence by the United States that its farmers be permitted to continue using the pesticide and fumigant methyl bromide as an exemption to the terms of the Montreal Protocol, a treaty to phase out chemicals that destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer.

Under the treaty, the United States began phasing out methyl bromide 10 years ago. Production is supposed to end January 1, 2005, except for "critical uses" for which there are no safer alternatives. Even these exemptions are limited to 30 percent of the 1991 baseline production level.

But in Nairobi the U.S. delegation demanded that it be allowed to increase production in 2005 by nearly one-third, up to 39 percent of 1991 levels.

Although the proposal exceeded all other countries' exemption requests combined, other countries offered to give the United States exemptions totaling 30 percent of the 1991 levels.

But delegates found the United States intractable on their 39 percent demand, and the contact group negotiating on methyl bromide was able to reach no agreement.

U.S. lead negotiator Claudia McMurray, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, denied that the U.S. nominations for methyl bromide critical use exemptions would undermine the Montreal Protocol. But the European Union and other countries objected to such a large exemption.

Facing a deadlock over the issue, negotiators scheduled a special meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in March 2004.

Environmentalists were critical of the U.S. position. David Doniger, Climate Center policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Reversing the methyl bromide phaseout would raise cancer risk and punish the responsible businesses that invested in safer alternatives."

"The administration could have had world agreement on more than three-quarters of its demand, but instead has continued to demand it all, with no hint of compromise," Doniger said. "To their credit, other countries are holding fast to the terms of the treaty."

California Strawberry Commission representatives attending the Nairobi meeting supported the U.S. delegates in their efforts to win approval of critical use exemptions (CUE) for 2005 at 39 percent of the base rate.

Commission Chairman Mark Murai said the strawberry organization, "appreciates the strong stance taken by the U.S. delegates to defend the U.S. request."

Murai said it appeared that "the main reason for the breakdown was the opposition of the European Union to any CUE exceeding 30 percent of the baseline."

Although 39 percent was a higher request than from any other country, it represented 40 percent less than American agriculture had requested from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Murai said. Methyl bromide is used to control insects, nematodes, weeds, and pathogens in more than 100 crops including peppers, eggplants, and sweet potatoes, forest nursery seedlings, fruit tree nurseries and orchards, and in ginger production.

The Strawberry Commission now expects that legislation sponsored by Congressman George Radanovich of California will gain support in Congress. The Radanovich bill would allow growers to apply methyl bromide in 2005, up to 39 percent of the base rate regardless of the Montreal Protocol inaction.

If this bill becomes law it would place the U.S. in violation of the treaty, which was negotiated and ratified under President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush.

Methyl bromide is the most destructive ozone depleting chemical still in widespread use. Depletion of the ozone layer increases risk of skin cancer, cataracts and immunological disease for millions of people worldwide. Methyl bromide is known to cause prostate cancer serious injury to lungs and nervous system of agricultural workers.

In October, the United Nations Environment Programme's Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee recommended that some 5,300 tons of the chemical be permitted for use on U.S. strawberry and tomato fields because no alternatives are commercially available.

Still, said the panel, "several fumigant alternatives are providing effective control of pests in many circumstances." The panel approved the U.S. critical use exemptions, but with reservations, saying it "could not determine why some of these alternatives were not feasible in the specific circumstances of the nomination, but accepts statements in the nomination that alternatives were not appropriate."

While the California Strawberry Commission continues to work towards the adoption of viable alternatives to methyl bromide, suitable alternatives are still in short supply, Murai said.

In Nairobi, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warned of a variety of unscrupulous and illicit practices involving methyl bromide, including unreported stockpiling, dumping into developing countries by industry, and increasing smuggling.

In an address to the plenary session, the nongovernmental organization warned that critical use exemptions should not be granted without full assessment of stockpiles and actions to counter smuggling.

Alexander von Bismarck, senior campaigner and investigator with EIA, said, “As well as depleting the ozone layer, methyl bromide is a highly toxic and dangerous chemical. Countries should ask if it is judicious to allow more of this chemical into the market when they don’t know who’s stockpiling it, where it is, or where it is going.”

“At this crucial time when the ozone hole is at it’s largest size," von Bismarck warned, "this historically successful body is in danger of taking a blind step in the wrong direction. The Montreal Protocol should not abandon the precautionary principle on which it is based.”


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