Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator





Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Non-plants, Non-pests, and Non-sense at the USDA

To the FWGNA group:

The essay that follows is based on a diary I kept this past summer chronicling my extended efforts to obtain an importation permit for living freshwater snails from Europe. Any of you who anticipate similar needs in the future will find tidbits of helpful advice scattered about below. Otherwise, the piece is humbly offered for your entertainment.

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“Thank heaven I know somebody on the inside,” I remember thinking to myself as I dashed off a quick email to my friend Jim Smith at the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-CHPST-PEREL. “Otherwise this could become a real pain.”

I had just resolved, earlier that afternoon, to try to import a sample of living freshwater gastropods into the United States through the front door. Heaven knows I’ve done it through the back door all my life – sometimes in my luggage, sometimes in brown packages accompanied by less than candid paperwork. I remember smuggling Lymnaea peregra out of Hungary in a 3-dram vial of lake water, tucked into my sock. But this time, I resolved to myself, I am going to do this thing right.

But my initial foray into the forest of American bureaucracy had ended in utter defeat. I knew I needed a permit, but what type, and from where? If Planorbarius corneus, the European snail I wished to import, hosted some medically-important parasite, I should need to go to the CDC. If the snails were endangered I’d need to go to the FWS. And if they were agricultural pests, I’d require a permit from the USDA. But P. corneus (below) has no medical or agricultural importance, nor is it the object of any conservation concern. To what agency would a befuddled biologist turn?

After browsing around the various cabinet-level websites, I resolved to begin my inquiry at the USDA. This brings us to the top of our story, and a series of cordial emails with our good friend Jim Smith of the United States Department of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Plant Protection and Quarantine – Center for Plant Health Science and Technology – Plant Epidemiology and Risk Assessment Laboratory in Raleigh, NC.

Yes, Jim assured me, I’d come to the right agency. And the necessary paperwork would be their PPQ form 526, “Application for Permit to Move Live Plant Pests or Noxious Weeds.” Apparently approval of such an application by the USDA is required to “move” any “live non-vertebrate animal,” regardless of whether such animal is a plant pest or not. I understand that there is an initiative within the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-CPHST-PERAL to rename PPQ-526, “Application for Permit to Move Live Plant Pests and Live Plant Non-pests or Live Non-Plant Pests and Live Non-Plant Non-Pests,” but it’s tied up in red tape.

My buddy Jim indicated that his Permits Unit prefers On-line submission of the Form 526. For this I would need to obtain a “level 2” account through the USDA “eAuthentication” website.

I’m sure all of us have applied for on-line accounts many times in our lives – it’s a regular indignity of life in the 21st century. But the USDA system is the worst I have ever seen. In addition to a username and a PIN, one must specify a 9 – 12 character password with letters and non-letters with caps and non-caps but without dictionary words. The system rejects passwords with even short, unintended dictionary words, so the password must be carefully designed to be entirely non-word. And in addition to supplying one’s mother’s maiden name, one must answer five additional questions about one’s high school and high school mascot and high school mascot’s mother’s maiden name.

The second-most irritating aspect of my application for a on-line account with the USDA was that the agency specified very clearly that my real, genuine name in their system must match the name on my government-issued photo ID (i.e., drivers’ license), but there was no way to make their system accept the suffix, “Jr.”

But the first-most irritating thing about the process was that, after I’d finally entered my personal information and my high school mascot and received a confirming email and replied to that email to “activate my account,” I was still not authorized to conduct electronic business with the USDA. I was instructed to present myself in person with photo ID in hand at a “USDA Service Center.” And I was cautioned, “We recommend that you call ahead to ensure that an employee trained as a Local Registration Authority (LRA) will be available to provide the service at the time you plan to visit the Service Center.”

I’ve been filing my taxes on-line with the IRS for years without ever presenting myself in person. But just for the privilege of applying for a permit to import 30 snails in a plastic coke bottle, I found myself driving 40 minutes to the edge of town for examination by a trained USDA-APHIS-PPQ-LRA. All the while wondering how this person might handle the “Jr” issue.

On that score, I need not have worried. Lenora, the LRA on duty at the USDA North Charleston Service Center was quite efficient and very nice. The most important thing to her was that the address on my photo ID matched the address in their on-line system. This was my home address, not my business address (to which the dangerous snails would be delivered), but if that were to become a problem, I resolved to deal with it later. I felt a twinge of optimism on my 40 minute drive back to The College, printer page identifying me as a “Validated Level 2 Customer” tucked safely into my brief case.

That afternoon I boldly attacked the aphis.usda.gov website, hitting “apply for a permit” then “apply for a PPQ permit” then “apply on-line for a PPQ 526.” This took me to the login screen, which worked! “Welcome to ePermits, your one-stop Source for Agricultural Permitting.” And what might the first screen be? Please enter your address.

The system remembered my simple name (“Robert Dillon”) with no middle initial, my email address, and absolutely nothing else. I had to re-enter all my contact info, telephone numbers, and institutional affiliation. Then “create application” then “Plant Protection and Quarantine” (again) then “PPQ 526” (again!)

The on-line version of the PPQ 526 is called, “Permit to Move Live Plant Pests, Biological Control Agents, Bees, Parasitic Plants, or Federal Noxious Weeds,” a somewhat expanded title that still doesn’t include what I actually wanted it to do. There were seven steps to complete the process, which took me about an hour.

The most interesting step of the application process was entitled, “Articles.” This is the single unmodified noun that the USDA-APHIS-PPQ has adopted to describe all the pests, biological control agents, bees, plants, weeds, non-pests, non-weeds and non-bees that it regulates. Here the applicant finds search boxes that will allow him to “find regulated article by scientific name” or “find regulated article by category.”

On a whim I pulled down the list of categories to “Invertebrate Pests – Mollusks” and found a short and peculiar list of 66 gastropods. Yes, most were indeed pest land snails and slugs. But the marine Strombus spp, Turbo spp, and Cypraea spp? Thank heaven for the USDA, or our shores should become infested with cowries.

And yes, I found a smattering of freshwater gastropods in the “Invertebrate pests – mollusks” list, including Physa acuta and 7 species of Pomacea. And – wonder of wonders – I found the entry “Planorbis corneus!” What is the chance that, in a nearly-random sample of 66 gastropods from a worldwide fauna of ten-to-the-6th, one might find precisely the European freshwater snail species one was interested in? But (Alarm bells dimly ringing!) in 1806 most Europeans seem to have followed Froriep in adding two syllables to the genus nomen. Today my snail is generally identified as “Planorbarius corneus.” Might this tiny discrepancy scotch the deal?

Step 6 of the application was, “Attachments.” My good friend Jim suggested to me that “a separate page describing exactly how you wish to import, the suggested uses of the organism, and why it is not a risk to US environment or agriculture helps speed the process.” So I did.

After clicking the “submit” button Jim went on to suggest that I give the permits unit approximately a week to process my application, then contact Ms. Carmen Soileau of the Biotechnology Regulatory Service (USDA-APHIS-BRS). “She will be the one analyzing your permit, and can answer any questions.” So I did that too.

In comparison with the ordeal of filing an application, the remainder of the process was relatively painless. I did receive (almost immediately) a confirmation that my application number P526-080415-010 had been submitted. No problems developed, and in only 9 days I was alerted to download a “letter of no jurisdiction” from my own little corner of the USDA web site.

I received neither a permit, nor a non-permit, from the USDA. Rather, my “letter of no jurisdiction” turned out to be a simple statement, signed by Ms. Soileau, stating that “an import permit is not required.” I was advised to “include this letter with each shipment into the United States, in order to facilitate movement and inspection by Customs and Border Patrol Officers.” If not, I presume, the authorities would not know that the importation of my non-plant non-pests is not non-permitted.

We’ll keep in touch,

Rob