The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing changes to the Application Exclusion Zone language in federal pesticide law that would expand exemptions and lessen regulatory requirements for ag operations.

The changes, announced Thursday in an EPA press release, would expand AEZ exemptions under the existing Worker Protection Standard to a producer’s immediate family, limit AEZ applicability to a farm owner’s property, and clarify language on pesticide applications being suspended when other individuals enter the AEZ.

EPA said limiting the AEZ to a farm owner’s property was necessary because “the off-farm aspect of this provision has proven very difficult for state regulators to enforce.” It said off-farm bystanders “would still be protected from pesticide applications thanks to existing ‘do not contact’ requirements” prohibiting “use in a manner that would contact unprotected individuals.”

As for the immediate family language, EPA said the expanded exemptions would “allow farm owners and their immediate family members to decide whether to stay in their homes or other enclosed structures on their property during certain pesticide applications, rather than compelling them to leave even when they feel safe remaining.”

In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the changes in the proposal “more effective and easier to implement.”

“Our proposal will make targeted updates, maintaining safety requirements to protect the health of those in farm country, while providing greater flexibility for farmers,” he said.

Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue echoed Wheeler’s sentiments, saying the changes will “make it easier for farmers and growers to comply” with the AEZ requirements.

EPA’s proposal was met with far-reaching adulation from farm groups.

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture CEO Barb Glenn said the state regulators charged with implementing the new regulations would appreciate the added clarity.

“Additional and improved guidelines for implementing pesticide safety standards are always welcomed, as NASDA members hold highly the responsibility of protecting our nation’s agricultural workforce,” she said.

Darren Coppock, president and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association, said the “initial AEZ regulations were impractical and would have severely disrupted normal agricultural pesticide applications.

“These targeted revisions will reduce regulatory burdens, improve industry compliance, and ensure it is feasible for farm owners to implement without incurring a significant adverse economic impact,” Coppock said in a statement.

But the praise for the move wasn't unanimous. 

Farmworker Justice attorney Iris Figueroa said the changes "reduce, weaken or eliminate AEZ provisions. This is likely to increase exposure to pesticide drift."

She said in the original WPS, EPA "recognized that the no-contact provision was insufficient" to protect from pesticide drift, necessitating adoption of the AEZ.

The proposal is open for public comment. EPA says it is specifically “seeking input on select updates that were publicly suggested to EPA by both state pesticide agencies responsible for enforcing the provision and agricultural stakeholders.”

"We'll obviously be submitting comments," Figueroa said.

Steve Davies contributed to this story.

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