Groups gather outside of Tulare County Ag Commissioner’s Office calling for county to post notices of pesticide sprays online before they happen
TULARE COUNTY – Two months ago, Alejandra Reyes led a delegation of activists on a Zoom meeting with Agriculture Commissioner Tom Tucker to share concerns of pesticide use in Tulare County. As a member of the Tulare County Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (TC CAPS), Reyes says she knows how to keep herself, her family and her community safe from pesticides but only if she knows when they will be applied.
“What do I have to do to get you to protect us?,” she asked. “Show up at your door?”
And that’s exactly what she did May 17 when she spoke at a press conference just outside Tucker’s office demanding the Ag Commissioner post information notifying rural communities when, where and what kind of pesticides will be applied.
As a first step toward a comprehensive statewide notification system, advocates are calling for advance online publication of “Notices of Intent” (NOls), forms which growers must submit to county agricultural commissioners before they are permitted to use pesticides classified as restricted materials, those considered to be the most hazardous or prone to drift from the fields in neighboring homes, schools and communities.
Leading the press conference was Angel Garcia, organizing director for Californians For Pesticide Regulation (CPR), and founder of Tulare County-based Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety (TC CAPS). The Tulare County native began his advocacy for pesticide regulations in 2014 while working with Lindsay-based non-profit El Quinto Sol de America, part of a TC CAPS coalition.
“Now, the public can get NOls on request, but only after the fact. That’s too late to take precautions against the health threats of pesticides,” Garcia said. “We demand that the state require this information be made public in advance, so that people can protect themselves and their families. Allowing drift-prone chemicals to be used in secret is a serious public health threat.”
Following the press conference, the group of 15 people marched into the Ag Commissioner’s Office chanting, at first in English and then in Spanish: “What do we want? Notification! When do we want it? Now!” The group presented Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Chris Greer with a letter signed by those in attendance calling for the county to implement a pesticide notification system easily accessible to the public. The letter was in addition to more than 20,000 signatures statewide calling for public notification system.
The demonstration was one of four that took place across the state including Bakersfield, Modesto and Salinas organized by Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR). Lety Lopez, with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said events were organized to coincide with the birthday of Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring, published almost 60 years ago, exposed the health and environmental harms of DDT and other pesticides that leave a legacy of destruction.
“It took another 10 years for the government to ban DDT,” she said. “This has been a cruel pattern playing out for generations.”
CPR says nearly 20% of all pesticides used in the U.S. are applied in California, about 200 million pounds per year, and about half of that (108 million pounds) was applied in the San Joaquin Valley counties of Fresno, Kern, Tulare, San Joaquin and Madera.
Twenty-three percent of the pesticides used in 2015 were associated with some level of poisoning, cancer, birth defects, sterility, neurotoxicity, damage to the developing child and/or contamination of California groundwater, according to CPR.
“They say California has the most stringent pesticide regulations in the world, but the facts prove them wrong,” Garcia said.
Lupita Gonzalez, who is also a member of TC CAPS, works in the citrus fields of Tulare County and says it seems like the fields are poorly regulated. She said her employer gave a presentation about pesticides to a group of workers that said pesticides weren’t dangerous, because if they were, they wouldn’t be allowed for use, and that just because someone smells pesticides doesn’t mean they have been exposed.
“This is the misinformation we were given,” she said. “I expect the government to protect us but we have to start taking care of ourselves.”
She said her mother’s home in Lindsay is surrounded by treated fields and that her mother could take steps to protect herself, such as turning off her swamp cooler, closing doors and windows and changing clothes worn outside, if she was aware of upcoming sprays in time to take precautions.
“By refusing to provide advance information about pesticide spray, our county has chosen to shield the ag industry from scrutiny instead of protecting public health, it’s as simple as that,” Gonzalez said. “This information is available, and can easily be posted online. It’s time to demand that public information that affects our health be made public.”
According to a 2016-2017 study by DPR, Tulare County ranked third in pesticide use in the state behind neighboring counties Fresno (No. 1) and Kern (No. 2) with 19 million pounds of pesticide. Crops treated with the greatest total pounds of pesticides were also the crops with the greatest acreage in Tulare County, including almonds, grapes and oranges. But the DPR also contends pesticide drift is not a problem in Tulare County.
In 2018, DPR, with assistance from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, monitored air concentrations of 31 pesticides and five pesticide breakdown products in eight agricultural communities. The monitoring stations are in Shafter (Kern County), Santa Maria and Cuyama (Santa Barbara County), Watsonville (Santa Cruz County) and Chualar (Monterey County), Lindsay (Tulare County), Oxnard (Ventura County) and San Joaquin (Fresno County). In all, the results show that just 1.3% of the more than 12,000 samples exceeded screening levels or regulatory targets for pesticide concentrations. Of the 36 pesticides and products, 17 were only detected at trace levels and eight were not detected at all. Tulare County had the lowest levels of concentration with just 0.5% of samples exceeding standards.
The only community to exceed the standards was Shafter. In January 2018, the air monitoring results showed that the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene (1,3-D), had a 13-week average concentration of 5.6 parts per billion (ppb), significantly above the screening level of 3.0 ppb. A screening level is a level set by DPR to determine if a more detailed evaluation is warranted to assess a potential health risk. 1,3-dichloropropene (1,3-D), a known carcinogen, is used to fight pests that attack a wide range of crops including almonds, grapes, strawberries and sweet potatoes.
The DPR has ordered the Kern County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office to implement a notification system for pesticide applications in the Shafter area but Ag Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser is refusing to comply with the order. Fankhauser says the requirement would take up so much staff time it would take away his staff’s ability to process NOIs for farmers in a timely manner, which could cause farmers to cut corners in order to meet seasonal deadlines for their crops, and overwhelm his office with public complaints, which will have to be investigated because the public won’t be able to tell the difference between restricted and non-restricted pesticides or fertilizer applications.
“This will take away valuable man hours from our pesticide surveillance/compliance inspections and possibly put the public at greater risk as a result due to reduced oversight,” Fankhauser stated in his response to DPR in January.
Advocates point out Kern County already has a notification system for pesticide use but it is only between growers.
Under state law, some pesticide is allowed to drift off a property but “substantial” drift is prohibited. Certified applicators are the primary group responsible for drift management. Any illegal applications of pesticides could leave the applicator and farmer open to fines. County Ag Commissioners are required to investigate all reported pesticide drift and may fine pest control licensees up to $5,000 or suspend their license for up to three days. Growers found to have knowingly treated a commodity or crop with a pesticide that had been stolen or illegally obtained are subject to a fine of $10,000 plus one-half the value of the crop to which the illegally obtained pesticide was applied.
In addition, DPR licensees who sell, apply or provide stolen pesticides must have their license suspended for at least 18 months. Anyone found to have violated pesticide laws resulting in injury are also required to repay certain unreimbursed medical expenses of people who seek immediate medical attention from a pesticide incident involving production of an agricultural commodity.
Posting when pesticide applications will take place is like trying to predict every winner in the NCAA Tournament Bracket. Marianna Gentert, deputy ag commissioner of pesticide use and enforcement, said there are more than 70,000 pesticides registered for use in California and each of them has slightly different rules for applications based on manufacturer directed use and state-imposed regulations. Pesticides most likely to drift are called fumigants because it is applied in the form of a gas and must be injected into the soil instead of being released above ground. Fumigants are also banned within 36 hours of the start of a school day on properties within a quarter mile of a school as of Jan. 1, 2018.
The Right to Farm Act requires anyone purchasing property within a mile of a farm to be notified that farming activities, such as the application of non-toxic pesticides, can go on without notification. Certain pesticides require a permission slip signed by their neighbors within 1 mile.
For restricted pesticides, those deemed potentially harmful to humans, farmers are required to file a notice of intent (NOI) within 24 hours of spraying or applying the pesticide but represent about 1% of all pesticide applications.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time we don’t know when sprays are happening,” Gentert said.
There is also nothing in the law requiring the farmer to stick to a specific time or date. In fact, ag property owners have up to 96 hours (four days) after the proposed start time to begin applications. There are also pesticides with various restricted entry interval (REI) requirements prohibiting anyone from re-entering the property and posting signs about those restrictions for up to seven days after application. This information is also not currently included on NOIs, meaning residents would have to know which material was used and then research the rules regarding that specific pesticide.
“Every pesticide has its own rules,” Gentert said.
Staffing is an issue as well. Tulare County has 67 inspectors and 16 extra-help employees working out of five field offices throughout the county, the main office near the Agri-Center in Tulare and a warehouse. Even if the law required the Ag Commissioners office to post on its website when and where applications were happening, there wouldn’t be enough inspectors to ensure all the rules were followed on the more than 4,000 farms in the county encompassing nearly half a million acres.
CPR points out the work of other grounds around the state, such as the Safe Ag Safe Schools coalition, were able to fight for 10 schools in the Monterey Bay area to be notified when fumigants are used with a quarter mile. In 2017, DPR adopted new rules intended to protect young students from pesticide exposure prohibiting many pesticide applications within a quarter mile of a public K-12 school.
“As long as our agricultural system continues to depend on vast inputs of pesticides, the state must do better at letting people know what’s planned on our farms and fields,” said Bianca Lopez, founder of Modesto-based Valley Improvement Project. “Many of these chemicals are highly toxic and yet they continue to be sprayed by the millions of pounds on our food crops, right next to homes and schools, endangering residents and workers alike. The lack of transparency needs to end. We want to know where and when those 200 million pounds are being sprayed before it happens, not years after.”
DPR maintains California has the most robust state pesticide regulatory program in the nation, but admits pesticide drift sometimes occurs during application and can harm the public, workers, environment, and neighboring crops.
That’s why DPR recently announced plans to develop a statewide notification on regulation, and the governor’s revised budget, announced last week, includes $10 million for that purpose.
The one-time funding would implement a statewide infrastructure network to provide equitable access to important information about local pesticide use. The notification system would enable residents to take common-sense measures to further protect themselves and particularly sensitive populations from potential pesticide exposure.
“This proposal will provide a long-term solution,” DPR spokesperson Abbott Dutton said. “We’re taking bold and progressive action to ensure public health, improve enforcement of local pesticide use laws, and increase public transparency.”
DPR is launching a process this summer to develop and adopt the statewide regulations necessary for the notification system. Dutton said the process will have focus groups, webinars and workshops to receive input about what type of notification would be most useful. While the process will begin this summer it could extend until June 2024.
Advocates like Paulina Torres, staff attorney with Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, argue that NOls are public documents that can be made public now, without spending years on the regulatory process. Previous efforts by DPR to develop a notification rule in 2016 quickly withered under opposition from industry, which adamantly opposes any move toward greater transparency.
“Agricultural commissioners act under the direction and supervision of the director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. The state can use its existing authority to require county agricultural commissioners to post NOls in advance on a public website,” Torres said. “Since no burden would be placed on growers and pesticide applicators, no regulation is needed. The time to require more transparency is now, not years from now.”
There are a few things that can be done until the state implements a notification system statewide. Gentert said the ag commissioner has received a few reports from Tulare County Fire Stations in rural communities and from Sheriff’s deputies on patrol there relaying questions about sprays people see hanging or smell in the air. Gentert said her staff does their best to find the answers and then relay that information back to the residents through firefighters and deputies.
“We are here, even on weekends, and will attempt to answer every phone call and email question we receive,” Gentert said. “The public should feel free to call us if they have concerns and we will make sure they are applying the chemicals safely.”
Gentert said the best way for people to be notified of sprays in their community is to talk with farmers in and around their community and ask them to notify those who are nearby.
“We’ve never had a farmer decline that offer,” Gentert said. “The most effective way to do this is neighbor to neighbor.”