Three environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday to force it to prevent lead poisoning of wildlife from spent ammunition and lost fishing tackle.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the hunters group Project Gutpile. It comes after the EPA denied their petition to ban lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle, which the groups say kills 10 million to 20 million birds and other animals a year by lead poisoning.
"The EPA has the ability to protect America's wildlife from ongoing preventable lead poisoning, but continues to shirk its responsibility," said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The lawsuit asks a judge to order the EPA to develop rules to prevent wildlife poisoning from spent lead ammunition and fishing tackle.
In August, the EPA denied the ammunition part of the petition, saying it didn't have authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act. A few weeks ago, it rejected the fishing tackle portion, saying the petition didn't demonstrate a ban was necessary to protect against unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, as required by the law.
In the lawsuit, the groups say that EPA erred when it said it didn't have the authority to ban lead ammunition. They argued that the legislative history of the Toxic Substances Control Act makes it clear that components of ammunition — shots and bullets — may be regulated as chemical substances.
The groups' original petition cited nearly 500 peer-reviewed scientific articles that they said document the toxic effects of lead on wildlife, and the lawsuit argues that large amounts of lead continue to be deposited into the environment. According to the lawsuit, animals often mistake lead shotgun pellets and fishing tackle for food, grit or bone fragments, and avian scavengers are particularly vulnerable to lead in carcasses, gut piles and wounded prey species.
Gordon Robertson, vice president of the American Sportfishing Association, said the EPA got the decision right the first time.
"We fundamentally think this is the jurisdiction of state fish and wildlife agencies to address these types of problems where they may exist," he said. "The data shows this is not a population problem as it relates to the use of lead in fishing gear."
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Only three of the original five groups that filed the petition in August joined Tuesday's lawsuit. Not participating were the Association of Avian Veterinarians and the American Bird Conservancy.
The veterinarians group said it didn't have enough time to get a consensus from its members before the suit was filed. The bird conservancy said that it decided to approach the problem "from a different angle," said spokesman Robert Johns.
The petition, filed three months ago, stoked alarm among outdoorsmen, and prompted members of the House and Senate to introduce bills aimed at preventing the EPA from regulating ammunition or fishing tackle.
In 1994, under President Bill Clinton and EPA administrator Carol Browner, now the White House energy adviser, the EPA proposed banning lead and zinc in certain smaller-size fishing sinkers. In a statement at the time, the agency said: "The ingestion of even one small fishing sinker containing lead or zinc can result in the death of a water bird."
The proposal sparked a backlash in Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the "Common Sense in Fishing Regulations Act" in 1995 that would have blocked the EPA from implementing it. The agency eventually abandoned the proposal.