A bill quietly being pushed by the Deukmejian Administration to discourage the public from challenging state pesticide spraying suddenly was seized upon Tuesday by a tenacious state senator who wants to use the bill as a vehicle for his long-frustrated efforts to protect farm workers from accidental toxic poisoning.
Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland) pulled the Administration-backed bill from the Senate consent calendar, where it was not subject to debate and was awaiting routine passage along with a large packet of non-controversial measures. Petris served formal notice that he intends to press for major amendments, and a floor debate was set for today.
The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Norman Waters (D-Plymouth) and heavily opposed by consumer and environmental groups, would eliminate requirements for long environmental impact reports and substantially weaken the public’s ability to use the courts to block pest eradication efforts that use toxic pesticides.
The measure is backed by influential representatives of farming interests who believe that the courts have been unfairly interfering with pest eradication efforts needed to protect the state’s $14-billion agricultural industry.
Petris’ proposed amendments would not change the provisions sought by the Administration and the agriculture industry. They would, however, add proposed regulations sought by farm workers. Those regulations were stripped last week from one of Petris’ own bills. Under Petris’ amendments, farmers would be required to post warning signs around their fields whenever they use toxic pesticides.
Those amendments could pose serious problems for the Administration bill, because the posting of regulations is strongly opposed by Assembly Democrats from the state’s farm areas. Lawmakers would be forced to weigh growers’ opposition to the posting of warning signs against growers’ demands for quick action on pest eradication.
The bill’s sponsors fear that such a choice could doom their legislation, with only three days left before the Legislature adjourns for the year.
“We’ve all made commitments, and it would put us in a difficult position,” said Waters, who heads the Assembly Agriculture Committee. “Many of the rural Democrats are opposed to posting (warning signs), and they don’t think it’s fully necessary to do that.”
Waters threatened to retaliate by trying to kill important Senate bills pending in the Assembly if the Senate tries to hold up his measure while considering Petris’ amendments.
Petris, who has tried to win approval of pesticide posting regulations for more than 20 years, said that if he fails to add his amendments to Waters’ bill, he will attempt to insert them into a number of other measures awaiting legislative action.
“I’m going to try to put it into everything out there,” Petris said.
In a letter to senators, Petris maintained that his posting proposal, which was approved by the full Senate, has “earned widespread support” despite its rejection by an Assembly committee.
He blamed the loss on opposition from “hard-line agribusiness groups” that are supporting Waters’ bill. The bill grew out of growers’ fears about a recent court ruling blocking pesticide spraying for apple maggots that were infesting apple crops in Humboldt County. A Superior Court judge ordered a full environmental review, but state agriculture officials refused and instead canceled the eradication program.
Under Waters’ measure, courts no longer would be able to consider public health consequences of any pest eradication program, even when spraying was to be done in densely populated areas. Courts would have authority to halt spraying only if opponents could prove that state officials “abused their discretion” in ordering it.