CalEPA’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) is pressuring a county agricultural commissioner to implement a notification program that environmental activists have long sought. The system would notify residents and the general public of pesticide applications 24 hours in advance.
In a sternly worded letter in December, DPR Director Val Dolcini said he has the authority to order Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser to comply. He requested Fankhauser submit regular reports for three controversial pesticides, 1,3-D, MITC and chloropicrin, which have been on DPR’s radar as the agency considers new regulations.
On Tuesday, Fankhauser pushed back.
“I have offered two different workable notification programs that have fallen on deaf ears,” he wrote, arguing that DPR, the Air Resources Board (CARB) and “the activist representatives” have not compromised in their specific request for an online notification system.
The issue stems from discussions over an emissions reduction plan for the town of Shafter that the Air Resources Board approved in 2020 and that was initiated by the Legislature in AB 617. The plan calls for DPR to work with stakeholders on a pilot program for a notification system but does not spell out how that system should work. The steering committee advising the plan consisted of several environmental advocates.
According to Fankhauser, they pushed an idea that environmental groups had been asking him to do for several years, and even before he took over as commissioner, and then “seeded” that into the discussions for the emissions reduction plan. Their idea was for an online system making the notices public to everyone, which could hold growers liable for legal actions.
Fankhauser and the ag community countered with a proposal to hang notices on door handles within a 200-foot radius of applications. When the advocates refused to compromise, CARB board member Dean Florez, a native of Shafter and former state senator, came down to intervene. Fankhauser noted that Florez then cancelled a second meeting “when it became clear that the same stakeholders in the process were not negotiating in good faith.”
“I believe it became clear to Senator Florez that there was an overarching agenda of the statewide activists that was more important than actually addressing the needs of Shafter residents,” wrote Fankhauser.
Deciding that repeated attempts to reach a voluntary agreement have failed, Dolcini cited his authority in an obscure food and agriculture code developed when CDFA transitioned its pesticide enforcement duties to DPR in the 1990s, and he ordered Fankhauser to comply with the proposal from the environmentalists.
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Josh Huntsinger, president of the County Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, called Dolcini’s action unprecedented and his authority “tenuous at best.”
“This letter serves as another example of a continued lack of consideration that CDPR has exhibited over the last year, damaging our longstanding partnership and history of collaboratively working together to develop and implement new programs,” Huntsinger argued in a letter.
He cited another example in 2020, when the Newsom administration ordered commissioners to maintain pesticide enforcement during the pandemic.
“The Executive Order was received as heavy-handed guidance and an attempt to stretch regulatory authority,” wrote Huntsinger.
Huntsinger sided with Fankhauser in his argument that Dolcini’s request ignored the commissioner’s proposal, which had “specifically addressed [the environmentalists’] purported concerns.”
Fankhauser also offered to host informational meetings in Shafter to educate residents on pesticide applications and regulations. Since 2008, Kern County, he noted, has been the only county in the country to require growers to have a notification system for applications. This information is also shared with first responders. With the system already in place, Fankhauser questioned the need for another one and whether it was within the scope of AB 617.
“Notification of residents does not reduce emissions but only provides notification,” he wrote, adding that Kern has been singled out as the only county in the state required to comply with this system. “If this is a ‘right-to-know’ issue, then that issue exists statewide.”
Fankhauser feared the environmentalists’ proposal would backfire and put the public at risk by flooding his office with thousands of notifications that growers had no intention of following through on but submitted simply to avoid legal repercussions.
Dolcini told Agri-Pulse spray drift is an important public health issue and notifications are a way to offer transparency.
“There is a public right to know about pesticides being used in the vicinity of your home or your school or your park,” he said. “There's a certain transparency that's associated with the use of materials like this that is important for Californians to know, regardless of where they live.”
Dolcini felt he had the authority to make the request of Fankhauser.
“My hope in communicating with the commissioner in Kern County was that he would work with me to collaborate on something that made sense in Kern County,” said Dolcini.
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