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Delay Urged in Imposing Ban on Farm Pesticide : Regulation: Growers seek special legislative session to halt action on chemical called crucial to state’s agriculture.

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Anxious farm groups are asking Gov. Pete Wilson to call a special legislative session to prevent a threatened ban on the pesticide methyl bromide next year.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban methyl bromide at the start of the next century because the fumigant has been found to damage the ozone layer. Agribusiness in California thus believed that researchers had another five years to produce a substitute, but they have encountered a roadblock in a state law.

The Birth Defects Prevention Act of 1984 requires that manufacturers of 200 chemicals submit studies on health effects to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation or quit distributing the chemicals.

The company that makes methyl bromide, Great Lakes, says it can’t meet the deadline for its study, which was extended four years ago and now is set for March, 1996. Jim Wells, director of the state pesticide agency, admits that the delay in enforcing the deadline occurred partly because state and federal officials could not agree on topics Great Lakes needed to address in its methyl bromide study until last January.

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SB 808 by state Sen. Dick Monteith, R-Modesto, would extend the company’s deadline again, but the bill failed to get out of the Health Committee before the 1995 session ended. Agriculture interests hope to get the bill passed early next year, but they want it adopted in a special session so the bill can become law quickly and not wait until 1997 to take effect. The special session would run at the same time as the regular session of the Legislature starting in January.

The governor has not acted yet on the request for a special session.

Unless the bill takes effect immediately after passage, the manufacturer or distributors couldn’t sell any new methyl bromide in California. Farmers could continue using supplies of the chemical already on hand or available in stores.

“We would expect significant shortages,” says Veda Federighi, spokeswoman for the state pesticide agency.

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Karen Barrett Ross, lobbyist for the Agricultural Council of California, says the request for a special session was spurred by fear of shortages, even if they turn out to be temporary.

“We could have critical supply situations late in the year, and so we couldn’t just let [an extension] take effect in ’97,” Ross said.

However, legislative passage of a methyl bromide extension is not a sure thing. The birth defect act’s sponsor, Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland) said he will “do everything I can to block” an extension.

“They’re saying if they lose it, it’s going to be the collapse of the state of California,” Petris said. “I’ve been hearing that cry since Day One. We think it’s much too dangerous to play around with.”

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Methyl bromide is used at both ends of the crop cycle. It sanitizes soil by killing root-damaging nematodes before such annual crops as strawberries are planted or when orchards and vineyards are replanted. It’s also used to fumigate some nut crops after they are harvested to make sure they don’t contain any pests.

“It’s really crucial to California agriculture, a critical part of integrated pest management programs for many California commodities,” California Farm Bureau spokesman Bob Krauter said. “Without timely soil fumigation, crop yields would be sharply reduced.”

A University of California study two years ago estimated that a ban on methyl bromide would reduce the annual gross income of California farmers $311 million--or 1.5% of the $20 billion total.


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