• U.S.

Environment: Fighting the Fire Ant

4 minute read

The tools used by man to control his environment often contain unknown dangers. DDT, for example, was once heralded as the ultimate pesticide, then was deemed an insidious killer. Now the U.S. Government finds itself in court defending a newer pesticide called Mirex, which conservationists claim has toxic side effects.

The trouble was caused by the fire ant, an agricultural pest that entered the U.S. from South America about 50 years ago and is now considered a problem in most Southeastern states. The fire ant erects mounds on cleared land; like natural tank traps, the mounds foul farm machinery. Worse, the ant has a stinging bite that plagues farmers and city dwellers and can even kill small animals.

Sledgehammer v. Gnat. The Department of Agriculture is trying to banish the fire ant. But its latest plan for doing it is under sharp attack by three conservationist groups—the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and CLEAN (Committee for Leaving the Environment of America Natural). The Department’s program calls for discharging 450 million pounds of a bait containing 1,350,000 lbs. of Mirex—a powerful chlorinated hydrocarbon—on 150 million acres of land in nine Southern states. In a suit filed in U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., “on behalf of all citizens of the United States concerned with protecting the environment,” the conservationists seek to enjoin the ambitious twelve-year project on the grounds that it is unnecessary and dangerous. In effect, they say, it resembles the use of a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

The plaintiffs’ greatest concern is that far too little is known about the impact of Mirex when applied on a massive scale over a period of years. They are unimpressed by Government reports that no adverse effects have appeared so far in Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, where Mirex has already been applied to 3,000,000 acres.

To back up their suit, the conservationists point out that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare lists the chemical as a cause of cancer in mice. The National Marine Fisheries Service has demonstrated that in laboratory sea water, trace amounts of Mirex kill young shrimps and crabs. The conservationists also contend that the chemical will be discharged from aircraft on all surfaces that might be inhabited by fire ants, including streams, parks and playgrounds. As an alternative to airborne treatment, they suggest that the fire ant be curbed by spreading Mirex directly on the insects’ mounds.

The Justice Department has now issued a reply attacking the conservationists’ suit on strictly legal grounds. According to Justice, the plaintiffs have no legal right to bring suit against the Department of Agriculture, because it enjoys “sovereign immunity.” They also claim that the suit is premature, since the program has not yet been finally approved or funded. Furthermore, for a variety of technical reasons, it is impossible for the plaintiffs to claim that they represent “all citizens . . .” Therefore, Justice argues, the entire suit should be dismissed.

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In another legal offensive, the Environmental Defense Fund last week sought a federal court injunction against the Montrose Chemical Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer of DDT, and the county sanitation districts of Los Angeles. According to E.D.F., the defendants are illegally dumping vast quantities of DDT byproducts and waste into the Los Angeles sewage system, which then flow into the estuaries and coastal waters of Santa Monica Bay.

E.D.F. suggests that such discharges may be the chief source of DDT in Southern California waterways, and adds that the pesticide, which may endanger humans, has already caused the near extinction of the brown pelican.

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