EPA gives growers extension on fumigant



WASHINGTON (AP)—Fruit and vegetable growers will have an extra year to use a potent fumigant before it is banned to protect the Earth’s ozone layer, the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.

In a step hailed by agricultural representatives, EPA said farmers can continue using methyl bromide until Jan. 1, 2001. Methyl bromide will be eliminated after that date, in keeping with Clean Air Act requirements to ban it and other substances that deplete the stratosphere’s ozone layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The extension is part of a broader EPA rule to phase out chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and other ozone-depleting chemicals.

In March, EPA officially proposed banning methyl bromide as of Jan. 1, 2000. And a Nov. 9 notice of a rulemaking timetable that EPA published in the Federal Register did not mention any change in the 2000 date.

The move was criticized by environmental groups because methyl bromide while not as prevalent as CFCs, is a more potent ozone depleter.

Ann Schonfield, of the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco, said ‘‘The quicker you can ban methyl bromide the better it is for the atmosphere.’‘

Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group called the extension ‘‘a bad precedent’‘ and said, ‘‘We need to be working on alternatives to methyl bromide, not delaying rules.’‘

EPA’s rule also calls for phasing out the most severe ozone depleters called halons, used in fire extinguishers, by Jan. 1, 1994, and banning other fire-suppression material called hydrobromofluorocarbons, or HBFCs, by Jan. 1, 1996.

The rule bars use of CFCs, used for refrigeration and industrial cleaning processes, and two other substances by Jan. 1, 1996, in keeping with previously announced timetables.

The regulation freezes production and use of methyl bromide at 1991 levels starting this January.

That will not pose a problem for growers, whose usage already is in the 1991 range, said Michael Stuart, executive vice president and general manager of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

‘‘An extra year helps,’‘ Stuart said. ‘‘Our biggest concern is and will be to insure our growers have access to a commercially viable soil fumigant … That’s what we’re going to lose when methyl bromide is gone.’‘

The extra time will facilitate more research and approval time for a substitute, he said. Agricultural groups are working with EPA and the Agriculture Department to find alternatives.

Methyl bromide, considered a potent ozone depleter, is widely used to protect produce from insects and meet export fumigation requirements for produce and grains.

The ozone layer deflects harmful ultraviolet radiation and is considered vital to protection of human life and prevention of skin cancers.

At the time of this month’s congressional votes on the North American Free Trade Agreement, critics released a letter from U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association promising ‘‘there will not be any restriction on the manufacture or use (of methyl bromide) until the year 2000, by which time we hope to have satisfactory alternatives.’‘

An outcry from environmentalists prompted EPA officials and Kantor’s office to quickly back away from the implication of Kantor’s letter, saying the final rule on methyl bromide would be as originally proposed.

EPA officials insisted Tuesday the change had nothing to do with dealmaking to win congressional votes on NAFTA, because the decision was made three months earlier.

‘‘The pre-NAFTA rule was the same as the post-NAFTA rule,’‘ said EPA spokesman David Cohen. He said agency decided to give farmers an extra year because the rulemaking process was drifting late into this year, and the Clean Air Act allows for a full seven-year phaseout period, until 2001.

The United States is party to an international accord to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.