Assembly Democrats Force Cut in Pesticide Spraying

Times Staff Writer

Assembly Democrats, under pressure from conservationists and consumer groups, forced the Deukmejian Administration on Thursday to scale back its proposal to speed up pesticide spraying by drastically limiting environmental reviews and court challenges.

The grower-backed measure later sailed out of the Assembly on a 54-18 vote, although some Democratic opponents complained that the compromise still did not go far enough.

“These are highly inappropriate (environmental) exemptions,” complained Assemblyman Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

Administration officials, however, said they were satisfied with the outcome and predicted quick approval.

“Our legal counsel has assured me that we will be able to deal with pest infestations that we are concerned about,” said Deputy Food and Agriculture Director Hans Van Nes. “That’s all we came for and it looks like we got what we came for.”


Hurriedly Drafted

The legislation, approved Wednesday night by the Senate under heavy pressure from the Administration and agricultural lobbyists, was hurriedly drafted by the Administration and introduced in the last weeks of the legislative session after a judge postponed an apple-maggot spraying project in Humboldt County.

As drafted, it would eliminate requirements for environmental impact reports on all pesticide spraying and limit legal challenges by allowing courts to rule only on the issue of whether the state has “abused its discretion.” Eliminated would be court challenges based solely on danger to public health and related concerns.

The compromise struck Thursday would allow a waiver of environmental impact reporting requirements only for pest eradication programs where crops are immediately threatened by bugs, but not for routine pest control that often continues for years. The scaled-back bill would also allow the courts to consider health concerns and other issues as part of their determination of whether state officials abused their discretion in ordering spraying.

The bill, as originally drafted, was politically unpalatable for Sher and other Democrats who are attempting to block an Administration proposal to waive environmental reviews for major prison construction projects. To have accepted the environmental exemptions originally contained in the pesticide measure would have made it more difficult for these Democrats to continue opposing environmental waivers in the prison proposal.

Unusual Session

The compromise proposal was worked out in an unusual closed-door session after Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) refused to allow a floor vote on the measure.

The agreement was fashioned by representatives of the Planning and Conservation League, Consumers Union, the Department of Food and Agriculture and Democrats on the Assembly’s Agriculture and Judiciary committees.

Assemblyman Norman Waters (D-Plymouth), who carried the bill for the Administration, sought Thursday to downplay the significance of the changes, calling them minor. “It didn’t seem to me that we gave very much,” Waters said.

But Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), who led the opposition, said the changes “substantially resolved” the environmental concerns and lessened fears about legal restrictions on court challenges.

He conceded, however, that the rewritten measure did not satisfy the environmentalists’ objections.

‘Anger to Concern’

“Environmentalists continue to oppose the bill but their opposition has moved from anger to concern,” Connelly said. Responding to Sher’s criticism, Connelly said he shares concerns over the measure but “I’m also a realist. Sometimes you have to accept reality and compromise on bills you do not like.”

Procedurally, the Waters bill was approved by the Assembly and sent to the governor in its original form. The compromise amendments will be inserted into other legislation expected to be approved today by both houses.

Van Nes said the governor was committed to signing both Waters’ bill and the measure containing the compromise amendments.

In a related development, the Assembly restored farm worker-sponsored provisions to another bill requiring growers to post warning signs around their fields whenever they use toxic pesticides.

Those provisions had been stripped out of the measure, introduced by Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland), during earlier committee hearings. But the measure faces heavy opposition from the agriculture industry, which has managed to keep similar proposals from being enacted for nearly two decades.