Republicans joined by a lone Democrat presented agricultural interests with a victory Wednesday in the year's first legislative showdown over continued use of methyl bromide, the highly toxic insecticide gas applied across millions of acres of California farmland.
Legislation to scuttle an impending ban of the chemical and extend its use for almost two more years was approved by an Assembly committee, 8 to 4. Supporters were unmoved by testimony citing dangers to health and claims that safer methods of crop protection could be substituted.
The bill passed the GOP-dominated Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee with united Republican support after touching off two days of partisan warfare. Democrats accused committee Chairman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) of convening the panel with only minutes of notice Tuesday, and Richter fired back, charging the Democrats with stalling.
Although more partisan shouting broke out Wednesday, Democrat Dede Alpert of Coronado joined Republicans in voting for the bill, and other Democrats who voted "no" Wednesday indicated that they could support the measure with some changes. Backers said they were hopeful of getting full legislative approval quickly, with enough advance time to lift the March 30 ban on the use of the pesticide.
Gov. Pete Wilson called a special legislative session aimed at granting the latest in a nine-year series of extensions for the use of methyl bromide sought by farming interests. With enactment of new legislation, the deadline would advance to the end of 1997, when long-delayed studies would be evaluated to determine future use.
Under new Republican leadership in the Assembly, the push to retain methyl bromide joins a host of pro-business bills lining up for action in the Legislature. Of concern to environmental groups are measures to weaken the state's endangered species laws, deregulate polluting electric utilities and abolish the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Another measure, by freshman Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia), which is dubbed the "California Air Conditioner Protection Act of 1996," would extend permissible manufacture of ozone-depleting Freon, now banned, to 2000.
Methyl bromide is an odorless, colorless gas used mostly to sterilize soil prior to planting to kill off crop-damaging pests and in smaller amounts to treat harvested fruits and vegetables, which is required by many export buyers of California produce. It is also used to fumigate homes against termites. California used more than 18 million pounds of the substance in 1994, according to the state Environmental Protection Agency.
Wilson's agriculture officials, Republican and some Democratic lawmakers and agricultural interests maintain that methyl bromide is essential to maintaining huge sectors of California's $20-billion farm product industry.
"If we lost methyl bromide, we would lose up to $346 million in farm income," said Kevin Herglotz, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Job loss estimates range up to more than 9,800.
All sides in the dispute concede that there is clear evidence that there can be health hazards from exposure to the widely used insecticide. Cal/EPA officials say the gas caused 454 illnesses, half on farms and half in houses, between 1982 and 1993. Another 18 people died from methyl bromide exposure in that period, state officials say, but virtually all were trespassers who entered homes illegally while they were being fumigated.
Representatives of farm workers and neighbors near methyl bromide-treated fields say hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have suffered from exposure.
Karen Light, who lives next to a strawberry field in Monterey County, told the lawmaker panel Wednesday that schoolchildren and adults, including herself, have suffered the twitching, blurred vision, vomiting and dizziness associated with methyl bromide exposure.
"If you pass these bills," Light told the Assembly members, "I'm going to go on being poisoned."
Methyl bromide has also been identified as a highly potent agent for depleting the ozone layer in the atmosphere, which protects the Earth from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from the sun.
Jamie Liebman, a soil expert opposed to using methyl bromide, sketched out a series of alternatives that are used in other states and countries. But Republicans on the panel said if a viable alternative were available, farmers would not be spending up to $1,400 an acre for methyl bromide treatment.
As to health risks, Richter said, the state takes "all kinds of precautions" in supervising the use of the chemical, with "minimal" injuries.