By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday it will allow farmers to spray crops with weed killers based on the chemical dicamba that are sold by Bayer AG <BAYGn.DE> and other companies, after a U.S. appeals court blocked sales in June.
The decision is a boost for Bayer, which has been hammered by lawsuits over various chemicals in the United States since acquiring seed company Monsanto in 2018. Critics said it was another example of the Trump administration favoring business interests over regulations, just a week before the presidential election.
The EPA re-approved for five years Bayer's XtendiMax, a popular dicamba-based herbicide that is sprayed on soybeans and cotton genetically engineered to resist it. It is known to drift away and damage other crops that are not resistant to it.
The EPA will implement new restrictions on dicamba products that will "take care of the drift issues that we have witnessed in the past," Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters on a call.
The agency also re-approved BASF SE's <BASFn.DE> dicamba herbicide Engenia and extended an approval for Syngenta's Tavium.
Environmental groups have sought a ban on dicamba products, arguing they harm nearby plants and wildlife.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed this summer and ruled the EPA had substantially understated the risks related to the use of dicamba. Its ruling also blocked sales of Engenia and Corteva Agriscience's <CTVA.N> FeXapan.
The EPA's decision invalidates the court's ruling, experts said.
"Rather than evaluating the significant costs of dicamba drift as the 9th Circuit told them the law required, EPA rushed re-approval as a political prop just before the election," said George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety.
Bayer and farm groups including the American Soybean Association and the American Farm Bureau praised the EPA's decision.
About 60% of the U.S. soybean crop this year was estimated to be seeded with Bayer's Xtend soybeans, according to Bayer. They need to be sprayed with the herbicide to ward off weeds that have developed a tolerance for another chemical, glyphosate.
BASF said the need for its Engenia is greater than ever due to increased weed resistance to glyphosate. Syngenta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Corteva said it is focused on selling rival Enlist E3 soybeans seeds, which resist chemicals aside from dicamba.
The EPA said it would impose a June 30 deadline for farmers to spray dicamba on soybeans and a July 30 deadline for its use on cotton.
Farmers will not be able to spray dicamba within 240 feet to 310 feet (73 metres to 94 metres) of areas where certain species are located. The EPA will also require that users mix dicamba with another product, known as a "pH-buffering agent," to prevent it from drifting away.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio, Matthew Lewis and Richard Pullin)