Farm air pollution targeted

Times Staff Writer

California plans to enact the most costly pesticide regulation in state history as it cracks down on use of fumigants in farm fields to comply with a court-ordered deadline to combat smog.

Under the proposed regulation, to be unveiled today, California will be the first place in the nation to target the widely used chemicals, imposing statewide restrictions on how fumigants are applied as well as limits on use in three farming regions.

State officials warned that the cost will be extremely high -- estimated at $10 million to $40 million a year -- and that growers of strawberries, carrots, tomatoes and peppers will bear the brunt of it. The biggest burden will fall on Ventura County’s strawberry growers, who will face strict caps on emissions and may have to resort to pulling thousands of acres out of production to meet the smog targets.


“We are very concerned about the cost of the regulation,” said Rick Tomlinson, director of public policy for the California Strawberry Commission, which represents the state’s strawberry growers, who produce almost 90% of the nation’s crop.

“Using old, obsolete data, they are imposing a regulation that could drive a third of the acreage out of production in Ventura [County]. If the draft that is proposed is implemented, it will definitely drive growers out of business,” he said.

Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, said her agency “will do everything we can to keep California farms producing while we take these necessary steps to clean up our air.”

Fumigants are poisonous gases that are injected into fields before planting to sterilize the soil, killing insects, weeds and diseases. When they evaporate from the soil, smog-causing gases waft into the air.

The proposed rules, expected to go into effect by the end of the year, will “fundamentally change the way agriculture uses this class of materials,” Warmerdam said. No legislation is necessary; the agency has authority to set regulations.

“This gives us a fighting chance to meet our obligations under a federal court order. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re looking for, to meet our obligation to improve air quality in California,” she said.

California’s crackdown on the pesticides comes more than 10 years after the state first promised to force farmers to do their part to clean the air.

Last year, the U.S. District Court in Sacramento ordered the state pesticide agency to reduce pesticide emissions by 20% from 1991 levels in areas that violated national health standards for smog. That reduction was supposed to begin in 1997 under the state’s 1994 smog plan. A lawsuit was filed against the state by California environmental groups, led by El Comite Para el Bienestar de Earlimart, an advocacy group in the farm town of Earlimart, north of Bakersfield.

“The agricultural industry had a free ride for over 10 years. These regulations should have been adopted in 1997,” said Brent Newell, an attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who represents the plaintiffs. “Emissions have increased, and the public has borne that cost by breathing polluted air in three air basins.”

In Ventura County and the San Joaquin Valley, pesticides rank among the top 10 sources of smog-causing gases called volatile organic compounds.

Nearly 36 million pounds of seven fumigants were used on California farms in 2005. Under the proposal, volumes will decline an estimated 30% to 40%.

Although the requirements would raise the cost of growing many crops, the impact on consumer prices is unknown.

Under the proposal, all California growers who use fumigants must hire special commercial applicators and must incorporate low-emission techniques, such as injecting the gases deeper into soil that is moist and covering fields with heavier tarps.

“We’re going to be specifying and limiting methods for all the fumigants statewide,” said Paul Gosselin, the pesticide agency’s chief deputy director. “Any shallow, un-tarped methods are generally not going to be allowed.”

Additionally, specific caps on emissions will be set in Ventura County, the San Joaquin Valley and the southeastern desert region, which includes the Antelope and Coachella valleys. If those caps are exceeded, pesticide companies will be penalized and fumigant sales could be suspended.

In the San Joaquin Valley and desert region, low-emission techniques are expected to achieve the smog targets. But in Ventura County, they will fall short, so growers will need to find other solutions, Gosselin said.

Up to 10,000 acres -- one-third of Ventura County’s fumigated acres -- might have to be removed from production or left untreated to meet the court-ordered limit, pesticide department officials said. About 25% of the nation’s strawberries are grown in the county.

Warmerdam said crop acreage and pesticide emissions have surged in the Ventura area since 1991, the baseline year for smog emissions. Consequently, its target “will be more difficult to achieve. They will be forced to look at the most conservative application techniques.”

To stay in business, Ventura County growers may have to switch to more expensive organic methods or exchange profitable strawberries for lower-value crops that don’t use fumigants.

But many growers say fumigants are the most efficient way of killing a broad spectrum of pests. Land values are so high in the Ventura area that if they don’t grow strawberries, farmers may have to sell their land to developers -- which could worsen the region’s smog.

Tomlinson said growers dispute how big a role pesticides play in forming smog. He said that Ventura-area growers have already implemented low-emission fumigation techniques and that despite a growth in fumigated acreage, the county has complied with national smog standards for the last few years.

“It’s frustrating, because as an industry we were working on emission reduction well before this lawsuit,” he said. “Any time a government entity issues a scientifically flawed regulation from a 13-year-old [smog plan], we’re very concerned.”

State pesticide officials said that although the court ordered them to implement the reductions outlined in the 1994 smog plan, new, extensive studies of field emissions and application techniques were used to develop the regulation.

“We are going to comply with the court order with the best information we have at hand,” said agency spokesman Glenn Brank.

Environmental groups, including those that sued the state to force the regulation, said their biggest concern is enforcement. They want individual growers, not just pesticide manufacturers, to face potential penalties for exceeding emissions limits.

The pesticide department will hold two public hearings on its proposal in July. The regulation must be adopted by Jan. 1 under the court deadline.

Restrictions will be more severe in Ventura County than in Los Angeles County, where smog is far worse. That is because the Los Angeles Basin has already achieved the court-ordered 20% reduction in pesticide emissions. Much of that decline came from ending structural use of methyl bromide, which was sprayed in buildings to kill termites until most uses of the chemical were banned under a United Nations treaty to protect the ozone layer.

Only Ventura County, the San Joaquin Valley and the southeast desert remain far out of compliance. In Ventura County, fumigant emissions totaled 4.8 tons a day in 2004, nearly twice its court-ordered limit of 2.6 tons daily. In the San Joaquin Valley, fumigants emitted 17.9 tons per day, 2.4 daily tons more than allowed under the order.

For decades, oil refineries, automakers, paint manufacturers and other industries have had to cope with stringent and costly limits on volatile organic compounds. But until now, pesticide companies and users have not faced smog rules.

After the international phaseout of methyl bromide began, many growers turned to metam-sodium -- now the No. 1 fumigant in California, used largely for carrots -- and 1,3-dichloropropene, used largely for strawberries and grapes.

Fumigants are considered some of the most dangerous agricultural compounds. Some are carcinogenic and can cause acute respiratory and other health problems. The state recently announced other fumigant restrictions, including extended buffer zones and advance notification of schools, homes and hospitals, to reduce exposure to drift of toxic fumes.




Agricultural smog

California will become the first place in the nation to regulate air pollution from fumigants. The proposed rules would govern how they are used and impose limits on emissions in three regions of the state.

Smog emissions from pesticides, tons per day

*--* Area 2004* 2008 limit San Joaquin Valley 17.9 15.5 Ventura County 4.8 2.6 Southeast desert** 1.0 0.6


* Most recent data available

** Includes the Mojave Desert, Antelope Valley and Coachella Valley


Five most-used fumigants in California and major crops, 2005

(millions of pounds)

Metam sodium 13.0

Carrots: 5.9

Tomatoes: 1.8

Peppers: 0.5

Lettuce: 0.5


1,3-Dichloropropene 9.3

Strawberries: 1.6

Grapes: 1.3

Almonds: 1.0

Carrots: 0.9


Methyl bromide 6.4

Strawberries: 2.9

Walnuts: 0.3

Citrus: 0.1


Chloropicrin 4.9

Strawberries: 3.2

Raspberries: 0.1


Metam-potassium 1.9

Broccoli: 0.3

Peppers: 0.2


Source: California Department of Pesticide Regulation