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Groups Sue State to Curb Use of Pesticide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four environmental groups sued California on Wednesday, charging that government officials are endangering public health by insufficiently controlling the use of methyl bromide on farms.

Rather than adopt regulations for the toxic soil fumigant as required by a 1988 state law, the Department of Pesticide Regulation has governed methyl bromide use through broad guidelines enforced by county agricultural commissioners, the suit says.

Those guidelines have failed to prevent harmful concentrations of methyl bromide gas from drifting off cropland and into homes and schools, the suit charges.

“The mission of the Department of Pesticide Regulation is to protect people from harmful exposures to pesticides,” said Jeanne Merrill of the nonprofit group Pesticide Watch in San Francisco. “Yet year after year the department has failed in its mission. . . . And that is unacceptable.”

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James Wells, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, called the lawsuit’s charges “ridiculous,” asserting that California has tougher restrictions on methyl bromide than any other state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Specifically, he said, California is the only state that requires a buffer zone between homes and fields where methyl bromide is used. After air monitoring raised concerns about migrating gas last year, the department expanded such buffer zones from 30 to 100 feet.

But Wells acknowledged that the department has not adopted blanket regulations for the toxic pesticide as required by the Legislature a decade ago.

In a statement, he said the department concluded that a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating methyl bromide “would not adequately address every situation” where it is used.

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Instead, Wells said, the department drafted 400 pages of guidelines for county agricultural commissioners, who issue permits for methyl bromide to growers on a case-by-case basis. That approach, Wells argued, has led to more stringent control of the pesticide than regulations would achieve.

Methyl bromide is an odorless fumigant used to cleanse the soil of insects, mites, rodents and weeds before planting. It is most popular with strawberry growers but is also used on almonds, vegetables, grapes, green peppers and to fumigate crops for export. California and Florida are the world’s leading users of methyl bromide.

Treasured by farmers as a potent pest killer, the fumigant is highly poisonous to humans. Even small doses can cause headaches, vomiting, dizziness and damage to the central nervous system, while studies have shown it to cause birth defects in animals.

Since 1982, state officials have linked more than 450 poisonings to the pesticide, most of them involving farm workers. Environmentalists believe that the toll is much greater, arguing that many people suffering from pesticide poisoning assume that they have the flu or another common ailment.

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The chemical also has caused 19 deaths since 1982, all of them occurring when people entered fumigated buildings before the gas had dissipated.

As studies documenting methyl bromide’s harmful effects have multiplied, efforts to phase out the chemical--in use since the 1930s--have gathered steam.

Because methyl bromide is a known destroyer of the Earth’s protective ozone layer, the EPA has banned production and importation beginning in 2001.

In California, a coalition of environmental, farm worker and public health advocates have pushed for an earlier ban.

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One organization, the Environmental Working Group, has conducted several air monitoring studies concluding that hundreds of California children--especially those in Ventura, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties--are at risk because their schools abut fields where methyl bromide is used.

But the Legislature, under pressure from farming interests and Gov. Pete Wilson, has repeatedly extended the pesticide’s use--despite the failure by manufacturers to complete studies on the chemical’s health effects.

Those studies were completed in December and are now under review, said Veda Federighi, a spokeswoman for the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Filed in San Francisco Superior Court, the lawsuit seeks an order forcing the department to adopt regulations for methyl bromide. If such a move is ordered, that process would require public hearings on the pesticide, possibly increasing political pressure on state legislators to ban it before 2001.

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At a news conference announcing the litigation, environmentalists said that is their goal.

“Methyl bromide is on the way out,” said Anne Schonfield of the Pesticide Action Network, one of the four plaintiffs. “We’re calling on . . . California to say enough is enough, now is the time to get serious about methyl bromide to protect our communities.”

Michael Axline, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, argued that given the looming federal ban, the department ought to help growers develop alternatives to methyl bromide.

While there are some other methods in use--such as steam or solar sterilization of soil--most growers dismiss them as ineffective. And each time the issue comes up in the Legislature, farmers say they would suffer devastating losses if forced to abandon methyl bromide.

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Federighi said the department has issued grants--including one $93,000 grant announced Wednesday--to help the industry investigate other pest management methods.

In the farm belt, the lawsuit drew a chorus of groans from growers who say that environmentalists have exaggerated the health risks associated with methyl bromide.

Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, accused the plaintiffs of unfair tactics and misrepresentation.

“They want the power to be able to control how people farm,” Laird said. “I don’t even think it’s about methyl bromide. Once methyl bromide goes out of existence in the year 2001, it will be another issue.”

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Times correspondent Nick Green contributed to this story.

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BACKGROUND

Methyl bromide is an odorless gas injected into the soil to cleanse it of weeds, insects and diseases that can harm the roots of strawberries and other crops. After treatment, the soil is covered with protective tarps for several days to keep vapors from escaping. Poisonings occur when the gas leaks out prematurely, usually through rips in the tarps. The gas can cause nausea, dizziness and vomiting, and studies have linked the fumigant to birth defects in animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned the production and importation of methyl bromide beginning in 2001. A coalition of environmentalists and public health advocates are pushing for an earlier ban in California, but have met fierce resistance from farm interests.

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