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Bid to regulate fish poisons draws fire from environmental groups

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PHOENIX – The author of a bill that would require officials to conduct impact studies and notify residents before using aquatic poisons to control non-native fish says the human health risks associated with these chemicals call for regulations.

Opponents, however, say health concerns mask an attempt to discourage conserving native fish species by creating unnecessary red tape for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

SB 1469, authored by Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, would prohibit Game and Fish from using rotenone or antimycin A to control fish populations unless the department first conducts an impact analysis and obtains approval from the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. It would also require Game and Fish to alert nearby property owners before applying either of the chemicals to a body of water.

“This is just good policy,” Griffin said. “If one of our state agencies or departments are applying this chemical, tell me that it’s safe.”

The bill received Senate approval and on Monday got a nod from the House Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources.

Although the bill lists two aquatic poisons, Griffin said antimycin A is no longer used and the bill is primarily intended to regulate rotenone. Game and Fish uses it to get rid of invasive species that kill native fish, more than half of which are threatened or endangered.

She cited a 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health and the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., that suggested a link between rotenone and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

SB 1469 is nearly identical to failed legislation that Griffin authored in 2011.

Opponents say the bill isn’t about public health.

“It injects politics into the effort to restore native fishes in a big way,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, told lawmakers Monday.

The bill would exempt large reservoirs from the regulations, something that Bahr called a red flag.

“If you were concerned about human health, it seems like the No. 1 thing you would include would be reservoirs that are used for drinking water,” she said in an interview.

Steve Arnquist, executive director of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, said if health concerns spurred SB 1469, the measure should include other pesticides and herbicides.

“If it was about public health, then they’d be talking about chemicals that are put in our waterways that we already know are harmful,” he said.

Game and Fish has registered in support of SB 1469 but didn’t testify during Monday’s hearing. The department opposed Griffin’s past legislation, saying it would hurt conservation efforts, but changed its stance this session.

Larry Riley, assistant director of wildlife management at Game and Fish, said the past controversy over rotenone caused Director Larry Voyles to place a moratorium on the chemical in June 2011.

The department released a study in late 2011 that concluded rotenone in limited quantities has no known health impacts. It said no published studies had conclusively linked the chemical to Parkinson’s.

The study recommended Game and Fish continue using rotenone under federal regulations and notify the public before administering the chemical.

In light of the recommendations, Riley said, the Game and Fish Commission took a fresh look at Griffin’s legislation.

“When it came to SB 1469, the Game and Fish Commission looked at what we do now, what the commission’s policy is on the use of rotenone. … They said, ‘We’re doing almost everything that’s in there. That’s OK.’”

Bahr said the measure caters to livestock ranchers who want fewer limits on where their animals graze. Livestock are often excluded from riparian areas where endangered fish thrive, she said, adding that endangered species could die out if they aren’t adequately protected.

“If you don’t have native fish, maybe you have no limits,” she said.

Griffin said ranchers’ concerns are related to health, not grazing.

“It’s flat-out not true,” she said. “They’re concerned about the health of their cattle – if they’re drinking out of the water body, they’re concerned about that. So this is a public health bill and nothing else.”

Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, told the House committee the bill is a good faith effort to ensure the public is comfortable with the use of rotenone.

“We’re bringing government up to the standards of private industry,” he said. “If the private sector were to go out and use something similar and it got away or we didn’t notify someone that was poisoned by it, our businesses would be done, and we’d probably end up in jail.”