State's Nursery Industry Sues Kentucky Over Ban

Times Staff Writer

The trade association representing the $2.35-billion California nursery industry filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the agriculture commissioner of Kentucky, seeking to overturn what the group called a "blockade" against California's plants and even its dirt.

Kentucky this year banned the importation of California plant material, soil, firewood, logs and wreaths out of fear that sudden oak death, which has struck parts of Northern California, could spread east.

Camellias and rhododendrons, staples of California's nursery trade, are known hosts of the disease, which was first spotted in a wild oak forest in Marin County nine years ago. It spread to commercial nurseries in the area, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to slap a quarantine on 13 Northern California counties.

Special inspection rules were adopted for Southern California when the pathogen was detected at two local nurseries in March.

In a suit filed in Frankfort, Ky., the California Assn. of Nurseries & Garden Centers claimed that Kentucky's quarantine illegally extended beyond USDA regulations to control the pathogen. The group argued that the federal Plant Protection Act of 2000 prohibited states from unilaterally adopting regulations that deviate from the USDA rules.

Neither Kentucky agriculture officials nor the USDA returned calls seeking comment about the lawsuit, which was filed late in the business day.

Nine states have bans that go beyond USDA regulations. The suit was filed against Kentucky because its rules were the most restrictive, and the trade association could easily demonstrate the damage the stringent regulations were causing, said Tom O'Brien, an industry lobbyist. The lawsuit claims that the Kentucky's ban has cost Irvine-based Hines Horticulture Inc. about $600,000 in sales this year.

The industry also claimed that Kentucky was unfairly singling out California because it didn't have a similar ban on plants and soil from Oregon and Washington, where plants also have been infected.

California ships about $500 million of plants to other states annually. The state bans, and the destruction of infected plants and the expense of complying with the USDA's actions related to oak death have collectively cost producers millions of dollars since March.

At least 28 plant species are known to contract sudden oak death in the wild. An additional 31 species have demonstrated the ability to catch the disease in a controlled setting and are known as associated hosts.

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