Legislature Passes Pesticide Extension

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hailed as a victory for agriculture, a divided Assembly on Thursday gave final legislative approval to extending the use of the toxic pesticide methyl bromide on California farms through at least 1997.

The measure, approved 45-23 by a combination of Republicans and rural Democrats, now goes to Gov. Pete Wilson, who says he will sign it promptly. He called the importance of the vote "enormous."

Although many environmentalists and most lower-house Democrats warned that continued use of the chemical was a health menace, they lost in the face of economic arguments, principally that California's agricultural industry would suffer huge losses of jobs and overseas markets.

The measure is also the first of this year's so-called "Republican agenda" to clear both houses.

Republicans had sought unsuccessfully for the past year to head off a legal ban on methyl bromide that was to have kicked in March 30, but were frustrated by Democratic maneuvering. But this year, with the GOP in control of the Assembly, Republicans steered the measure through sympathetic lower-house committees and picked up similar support in the Senate, all leading to Thursday's final vote.

Wilson, who ordered the Legislature into special session to seek the extension, said use of the chemical is essential to farmers of several crops "and for all kinds of things that we export to countries that require methyl bromide" fumigation before exporting.

Methyl bromide is a powerful gas used mostly by farmers who inject it into the soil before planting. It is applied every year by non-organic strawberry growers, and is used by those who grow nuts, cherries, nectarines, grapes, cotton and several vegetable crops.

The chemical also is sprayed on harvested crops for export and used for fumigating against termites in residential and other structures.

Outlawing the chemical would be disastrous for the California farm economy, studies by the state Department of Food and Agriculture found. The farm economy would suffer a $346-million direct loss annually from smaller harvests, another $241 million in lost exports, the elimination of 10,000 jobs and further losses from agriculture-related trades and businesses, according to a department analysis.

Though the fight to retain methyl bromide has been a Republican initiative, Democratic state Sen. Henry Mello of strawberry-growing Monterey County is the author of the bill that Wilson is set to sign. And arguing for the chemical most forcefully Thursday in the Assembly was Central Valley Democrat Michael Machado of Linden.

Urban Democrats, farm labor and public interest groups and several scientists, though they conceded defeat this time, declared that a ban on the substance remains essential, citing 18 known deaths from overexposure and hundreds of cases of illness over a recent 12-year period. In addition, they described methyl bromide as a potent destroyer of the Earth's protective ozone layer.

Machado, however, said he lives and works in almond-growing areas where methyl bromide is used. He said he is confident that sufficient protections are taken by using special equipment and trained crews to prevent exposure to humans. In fact, he noted that members of his family and employees' children work side by side in areas where the pesticide has been used.

"I would do nothing to jeopardize their health," he said.

For emphasis, Machado brought to the Assembly floor a wicker basket of fruits and other items that benefited from methyl bromide.

Popping a large, red grape into his mouth, the farmer-politician held up a candlestick and a woman's blouse as products that even a city slicker might admire. "Candlesticks from Cost Plus, designer clothes from Nordstrom," Machado said, all need methyl bromide.

The chemical, he explained, is used to fumigate packing straw and crates loaded with such items as candlesticks and cotton fabric imported from overseas.

Maintaining that the pesticide is not so friendly, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) said that the dangers of exposure are well-known but that Republicans waved aside all attempts to build in protections. Democrats earlier pushed for amendments requiring the posting of warning notices in gassed fields and the setting up of larger buffer zones between fields and homes or schools, but the proposals were defeated during committee hearings.

"Proponents of this measure want to protect the economy but not the health of the children of California," Villaraigosa said.

In some cases, methyl bromide fumes have been shown to attack the central nervous and respiratory systems and bring on dizziness, vomiting and loss of orientation. Those killed from exposure were people who had--illegally--entered sealed homes undergoing methyl bromide fumigation and received particularly powerful doses, according to state officials.

Those voting for methyl bromide, said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-Novato), were perpetuating the use of "one of the most dangerous poisons in this state."

Ozone depletion concerns have led to federal legislation calling for a nationwide ban on methyl bromide by 2001. An international treaty has set a ban for 2010. The United States, which uses 40% of the methyl bromide applied worldwide, has signed the treaty.

Proponents here say California would be placing itself at a competitive disadvantage to enact a ban before the rest of the country or the world.

But Ralph Lightstone, an opponent of the pesticide and lobbyist for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said the fight against methyl bromide now shifts to Congress, where "the same groups that muscled [the extension] through here will try in Washington. We're worried that they'll succeed."

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