U.S. Requests Exemptions to Ozone Pact for Chemical

March 4, 2004

The United States is seeking to make more American farmers and industries exempt from an international ban on methyl bromide, a popular pesticide that damages Earth's protective ozone layer, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Last year, the administration sought to exclude a variety of farmers and food producers from the ban, which takes effect next year under a treaty outlawing substances that harm the ozone layer. The exempt businesses would be allowed 21.9 million pounds of methyl bromide next year and 20.8 million pounds in 2006 in uses like fumigating stored grain and treating golf-course sod and strawberry fields.

The new request, filed with United Nations treaty administrators last weekend, would add 1.1 million pounds to the 2005 request, to be used by producers of cut flowers, processed meats and tobacco seedlings.

Some American growers say methyl bromide remains vital to compete with countries where cheap laborers do weeding and pest control. Critics of the American requests said the exemptions could undermine the 1987 ozone treaty. Use of methyl bromide has been cut 70 percent in industrialized countries since 1999 under the treaty.

Parties to the pact, the Montreal Protocol, are to meet this month in Montreal to consider requests by the United States and other countries. The exemptions sought by the United States are larger than all other requests combined. Over all, the exemptions sought by the United States for 2005 and 2006 would cause a surge in American use of methyl bromide after steady declines.

"It's the first time any country has proposed to reverse the phaseout and increase the production of a chemical that's supposed to be eliminated," said David Doniger, who directs policy on atmosphere issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Administration officials defended the new requests, saying that they were justified under the treaty's clause allowing continuing "critical uses" of the chemical and that the United States remained a leader in curbing the use of ozone-destroying chemicals.

Critics said methyl bromide alternatives were succeeding globally, including flower pasteurization and indoor tobacco growing in artificial media with no pests. Some experts on plants and pests said the few remaining uses of methyl bromide were essential for some farmers.