For the second year in a row, debate has flared up in the Legislature over chlorpyrifos, an insecticide widely used in other states and now banned in California from all uses except under strict regulations for the granular form. Again, the industry is in the awkward position of defending the regulatory process under the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and explaining the complex science and safety protocols behind those decisions.
In 2019 Los Angeles Senator Maria Elena Durazo, a former labor rights leader, presented two bills aimed at a ban on all forms of chlorpyrifos, arguing the organophosphates class of pesticides can disrupt nervous system receptors and lead to brain damage in children.
In a hearing on Thursday for the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, Chair Bill Quirk of Hayward apologized to Durazo for having pulled her first bill from committee following negotiations with the administration and the announcement of the ban by CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. The second bill Durazo introduced aimed at banning chlorpyrifos immediately, rather than through CalEPA’s phased approach. A separate committee kept it from advancing.
The lengthy debates over the bills often pitted an industry epidemiologist against an advocacy group’s environmental scientist, with arguments boiling down to technical details within studies performed decades earlier. Farmers also testified on integrated pest management practices and how the ban could hurt them financially.
Now Durazo is taking aim at the granular formulation of chlorpyrifos. Dow AgroSciences and other registrants had negotiated an exemption for this use in exchange for dropping a lawsuit over the ban last fall. United Farm Workers (UFW), a co-sponsor of the new measure, suggested this agreement was a conspiracy between the industry and the administration, including cabinet members.
“CDFA Secretary Karen Ross also recommended these products be exempt from cancellation,” said UFW advocate Miko Chavez in the hearing Thursday. “The governor's loophole is dangerous, and his secretary as well.”
Durazo argued that traces of chlorpyrifos could still be brought home and poison children.
“DPR acknowledged that it only considered spray drift and dietary exposures,” she said. “To be clear, DPR did not evaluate the ways that granular chlorpyrifos can harm farmworkers.”
Rather than proposing another ban, Senate Bill 86—a gut-and-amend of one of last year’s ban bills—would require DPR to submit directly to the Legislature quarterly use reports on the granular form. Durazo called it “unacceptable” that DPR’s most recent data on pesticide use is from 2017.
“The DPR director has the discretion whether or not to publish or distribute the summaries,” she said.
Policy advocates for agriculture and Republican assemblymembers took issue with the many assertions about DPR and general farming practices.
Representing California Citrus Mutual, the Western Plant Health Association and the California Association for Pest Control Advisers, among other trade groups, policy advocate Lauren Noland-Hajick described in detail to the committee the many levels of safety precautions and restrictions for use already required for applying the product. She challenged a number of findings in the bill as well.
“It doesn't paint the whole picture of what we do here in California or the studies that have gone into, not just granular chlorpyrifos, but all pesticides here in the state,” she said. “Pesticides carry risks. We're not going to get around that point.”
In a memo to CDFA in 2019, DPR explained it did not pursue a cancellation process for granular because the department did not have evidence that granular posed the same concerns as they had for drift and dietary exposure. Noland-Hajick pointed out that state agencies inspect food and waterways for pesticides.
Taylor Roschen of the California Farm Bureau argued the bill would increase the workload for “overburdened” county agriculture commissioners and DPR staff. She said this could lead to invalid reports due to a rushed process and pull funding from other DPR functions.
Roschen explained that to cover these costs, DPR levies a mill tax on pesticide sales, leading to about $2 million in annual revenue. About half of that money goes to ag commissioners to collect the data and the rest is stretched across multiple functions for data collection, management and analysis, as well as other duties like environmental monitoring, risk assessments and public education.
“We can't identify a discernible public benefit from the bill that wouldn't result in more significant administrative or financial consequences,” said Roschen.
Associations for almond, seed and winegrape growers were also opposed, along with the California Chamber of Commerce.
During the debate, Republican Assemblymember Devon Mathis of Visalia keyed in on Noland-Hajick’s other point that DPR requires a field to be vacated for as much as five days after an application.
“When your house is bugged for termites, you're not going to walk inside of it,” he said. “So why would anybody be out in this field?”
He asked Durazo for any evidence of the granular form being tracked into a worker’s home, as she had claimed, or other cases of exposure. Tyler Smith, a policy advocate for EarthJustice, responded that U.S. EPA had found 70 uses of granular that also present risks to farmworkers, even after protective equipment is worn and after 10 days. Mathis called that “scenarios and not actual cases.” Durazo argued that there is no acceptable level of risk for exposure.
Heath Flora, a Republican representing parts of the San Joaquin Valley, drew on his background in agriculture to explain the importance of crop protection tools like chlorpyrifos for almond growers.
“The industry uses this very sparingly,” he said. “If we take that tool away, it absolutely can be devastating.”
Committee Chair Quirk, a former climate scientist, reminded the lawmakers that the bill is “simply” about a report.
“I ask you to vote on that and not an imaginary case where we're banning it,” he said.
The committee passed the bill along party lines, advancing it to the Appropriations Committee. Shutdowns related to the pandemic have shrunk the legislative calendar this year. This has led to lawmakers pulling hundreds of lower-priority bills to focus on measures related to the pandemic, economy and racial injustice, and it also means no other committee is likely to debate the measure before it is up for the final floor votes and advances to the governor’s desk.
While DPR was not represented in the hearing or in the 2019 hearings, DPR Director Val Dolcini told Agri-Pulse in July that the administration was working with members of the Legislature who were “interested in chlorpyrifos in all of its forms.”
Though the publicly available data is from 2017, Dolcini explained that the granular use has been “very small compared to the other uses” that are now banned in California.
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“The issues associated with granular use of chlorpyrifos don't really have the same health impacts that others do,” he said. “But nonetheless, it's something that we're really interested in learning more about.”
Dolcini added that the pesticide use report for the 2018 crop year will be published soon.
“That always lags behind because it takes a while to accumulate the data and then double and triple check it and then synthesize it with our own data,” he said.
A working group that recently presented a report advising DPR on alternatives to chlorpyrifos did not take granular into account. Yet DPR announced Monday three research grant awards totaling more than $2 million aimed at controlling aggressive ants in citrus and grapes, a problem the granular form of chlorpyrifos has been best suited for tackling. The funding came from $5.7 million Gov. Newsom allocated within the 2019-20 budget following the CalEPA announcement of the ban.