WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If environmental groups get their way, West Mathison fears that it will be illegal to spray pesticides on up to 80 percent of the farmland in Washington.
That's why Mathison, the president of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, came to Capitol Hill this week to tell Congress that the pesticide issue "is now a national crisis."
Farmers and growers from coast to coast are sounding alarms, fearful that regulators in Washington, D.C., want to make it more difficult for them to spread chemicals on their land.
They have found allies in House Republicans, who are moving to ease the rules and strip some of the power from the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the use of pesticides to control insects, diseases and weeds.
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The agency is getting heat from all sides: Environmentalists say the EPA has been far too lax in regulating pesticides and protecting the health of humans and animals.
"It is often forgotten that agricultural pesticides and herbicides are poisons for both fish and humans," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
The battle is being fought on two fronts: on Capitol Hill and in the courts.
In March, the House voted to approve a plan that would negate the need for additional permits when spraying for pests near bodies of water. That legislation is pending in the Senate.
The court fight is focused on the Endangered Species Act, which requires the EPA to consult with other federal agencies regarding any pesticide that could harm a protected species.
In January, the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the EPA, alleging that it did not adequately consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service in approving pesticides.
The lawsuit seeks federal protection for 214 endangered and threatened species, including the blackfooted ferret, the gray wolf, the northern spotted owl, the Red Hills salamander and the Alabama lampmussel.
The EPA defended its work at a House hearing this week.
Steven Bradbury, director of the EPA's office of pesticide programs, told the Natural Resources Committee that the agency has "a well-regarded program" for evaluating pesticide safety.
"A typical new agricultural pesticide must undergo over 100 different tests to characterize its potential risks," Bradbury said.
The lawsuit is prompting alarm among farmers and key lawmakers.
It could eliminate 380 pesticides used in 49 states, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
If the lawsuit succeeds and farmers and growers had to comply with 1,000-foot no-spray buffer zones around water, Mathison said, it would affect 80 percent of Washington's farmland.
"This would have a devastating impact on existing farms and orchards in Washington," said Mathison, who also is the president of the state's horticultural association.
Hastings noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed 28 populations of salmon as endangered in the Northwest and California.
When federal officials determined that the continued use of pesticides could endanger the salmon, the fisheries service said it wanted to require a quarter-mile buffer zone around any bodies of water that flow into salmon-bearing streams.
Hastings said that would affect up to 60 percent of the state's farmland, and he said California, Idaho and Oregon would get hit hard too.
With the issue in court, Hastings and 17 other House members -- including Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jaime Herrera Beutler and Democrat Rick Larsen -- sent a letter to the White House asking that the administration take more time in advancing any regulations.
"At a time when our economy is already struggling, these regulations would cost jobs and impose a significant blow on the ability for the economy to recover," they said in the letter.
Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the economy would be hurt if rivers are poisoned and reduce salmon runs, which support tens of thousands of jobs. And he noted that hundreds of millions of dollars already have been spent trying to protect salmon.
"Poisoning these species with federally allowed pesticide practices that pollute rivers works at complete cross-purposes with all existing salmon recovery efforts," he said.
Agricultural experts worry that the heavy use of pesticides already has led to widespread water pollution.
"All that farming in the corn and soybean belts, which have our heaviest total pesticides use, makes its ways into the Mississippi River flowing out right through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, where we have a large dead zone," said John Reganold, a professor of soil science at Washington State University.