The Bush administration on Friday won international approval for U.S. farmers to use thousands of tons of a potent ozone-destroying pesticide without having to dip substantially into large stockpiles that were recently revealed.

The pesticide, methyl bromide, was banned under an international treaty nearly two years ago except for uses deemed critical. U.S. officials have secured exemptions to the ban so that growers can use it to kill soil pests for tomatoes, strawberries and other crops in agricultural states like California and Florida.

At a meeting Friday in New Delhi, treaty partners approved use of just over 5,900 tons for those needs in 2008, said Michael Williams, spokesman for the Montreal Protocol, which works to phase out substances that deplete the ozone layer.

U.S. stockpiles far exceed that amount, but the nations said Americans can meet the need by manufacturing more than 5,000 tons of new methyl bromide. The stockpiles could then be drawn down to meet the rest of the agreed-on use.

The allotment is a reduction from the administration's request for nearly 7,100 tons, and continues the downward trend in annual methyl bromide production and use.

The decision came over the objections of European nations and despite the recommendation of the treaty's own technical committee. That panel had urged a more substantial cut in the U.S. request on grounds that other countries have proved that alternative chemicals and methods can successfully replace methyl bromide.

European delegates voiced concern about the U.S. stockpiles, measured by the administration at nearly 11,000 tons at the end of last year.

"It was indeed a very big concern that that there were quite substantial amounts off stock existing, which we consider that they should now consume as soon as possible,"said Jukka Uosukainen, head of Finland's delegation.

Before Friday's session, Swedish delegate Husamuddin Ahmadzai said in a telephone interview that the U.S. pace in reducing methyl bromide reduction"is certainly undermining the spirit of the Montreal Protocol and setting a bad example for other countries."

Officials from the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency did not return phone messages and e-mails from The Associated Press seeking comment Friday.

Jay Vroom, president of the pesticide association CropLife America, said the action in New Delhi reflected appropriate compromise and underscores the need for methyl bromide in America's diverse agriculture.

"By no means is there one product that will fit all the critical uses of methyl bromide today,"he said. The continued exemptions are needed while research continues on the alternative pesticides, he said, adding,"We're not there yet, and the American farmer needs to have these tools so we can continue to be have viable exports."

The decision brought strong criticism from environmental advocates attending the session.

"It's extremely disappointing that now that the U.S. has finally confirmed its enormous stockpile, it continues to fight tooth and nail to get special treatment in the world to use a gas that will cause increased skin cancer and a host of other environmental effects,"said Sascha Von Bismarck of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The ozone layer protects life on earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Scientists reported recently that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is the largest on record.

The Bush administration contends that the stockpiles existed before the 2005 ban and thus are not subject to a treaty rule allowing new production only if existing, available stockpiles cannot cover the need.

U.S. officials have said the inventory is held by 35 companies and is needed to ease growers'adjustment to the methyl bromide phase-out that was ordered 14 years ago. At nearly 11,000 tons, it is down from more than 18,000 tons two years ago, numbers revealed by the EPA after conclusion of industry litigation trying to block the disclosure.

Many farmers have switched to other pesticides for a 75 percent reduction in methyl bromide levels since 1991.

"The U.S. position is that we are appropriately managing the strategic reserve,"Drusilla Hufford, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's stratospheric protection division, said this week."We've drawn it down every year."

Hufford said the United States has spent $150 million on alternative pesticides.

"There's a lot going on, but in order to continue the progress so you don't have supply shocks or sudden unanticipated changes in the market, we found in the past that it is useful and helpful to the cause of ozone protection to have that reserve,"she said.

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