Assembly committees last week held the first of likely a series of hearings on the state’s plan for reducing the use of conventional pesticides statewide. Coastal lawmakers pressed Newsom administration officials on details for accomplishing this transition, while rural lawmakers raised concerns over casting broadly sweeping regulations for the nation’s most diverse agricultural economy.

CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld framed the administration’s agenda as accelerating the transition to low-toxicity pesticides to stay one step ahead of the agricultural sector in combating increasing pest pressures brought on by warming climates.

“The success that we're having translates nationally, as other states and the federal government look to California's leadership on these issues,” said Blumenfeld, during a joint hearing of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee and a budget subcommittee.

A UC Berkeley public health researcher presented a dire situation for the state to address. For 20 years, Professor Kim Harley has been researching the impacts of pesticides on the health of mothers and children in agricultural communities.

“The pesticides that we put on fields don't stay there,” she warned, explaining how they are found in streams, drinking water, bodies and in the air miles away.

Her team has detected pesticide residues in nearly all homes in the Salinas Valley, with higher levels in those near fields. Tracking families exposed to the organophosphate class of insecticides, Harley found increases in birth abnormalities and a drop in children’s IQ that is on par with lead poisoning, along with correlations to autism, ADHD and decreased brain activation in kids.

Kim HarleyUC Berkeley Professor Kim Harley

She warned that even though the Newsom administration banned chlorpyrifos in California, other organophosphates can have the same impacts. While the use of organophosphates has declined by 79% over the last 30 years, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, Harley charged that farmers have replaced them with pyrethroids, which also harm children’s neurodevelopment. She raised more alarms over neonicotinoids harming pollinators and potentially leading to human birth defects.

Harley attributed her findings to the fact that California tracks pesticide use more than any other agricultural region in the nation, providing a rich source of data for epidemiologists.

Her testimony ignited an immediate backlash from Republican Assemblymember Devin Mathis of Visalia, who has vigorously defended the agriculture industry in Assembly policy debates. Mathis stressed that the research may not be accounting for the various ways pesticides are applied as well as for the geographic differences between the Salinas Valley and other farming regions and for the hundreds of crop types that require different products and tolerances. He touched on an underlining frustration among farmers that public health research at the state’s more liberal institutions is often performed without any collaboration from the farming community.

Returning to the state’s ban on chlorpyrifos, Mathis pointed out that the state has allowed an exemption for limited use of the granular form, which involves pellets deposited in the soil. Harley responded that her research has been limited to blood and urine sampling and not agricultural practices in the field.

“We need to make sure that you know what is the practice in that community,” said Mathis. “We can show the levels have gone down since we've switched to pelletized. That needs to be noted.”

He pushed for more data gathered from across the state that would give better insight into precisely how farming communities are being impacted, rather than extrapolating from one region with a fraction of the state’s crops and an outsized share of the labor force.

Harley has played an instrumental role in two work groups CalEPA has established for developing alternatives to chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates, as well as pesticides like pyrethroids and neonicotinoids.

Her testimony set the stage for how the administration is addressing potential risks. DPR Director Julie Henderson detailed how the agency has been doubling down on environmental justice by engaging directly with these groups and communities to accelerate the transition away from “harmful” pesticides.

DPR has been spearheading a new program for a statewide notification system to alert residents ahead of any applications, offering them an opportunity for “bringing children indoors, staying away from fields, closing windows, bringing in laundry and toys,” according to Henderson.

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She shared the administration’s goal of increasing the agency’s enforcement authority for violations that cross jurisdictions, which would restore enforcement powers that expired in 2006. DPR is also proposing to increase fines for civil, criminal and administrative penalties in an effort to raise more revenues for the flagging department.

“Fine levels for pesticide use violations have remained largely unchanged for decades and need to be modernized to effectively deter violations and account for years of inflation and keep pace with federal pesticide enforcement penalties,” explained Henderson.

These actions follow an already declining trend in pesticide impacts to people and the environment in California. Henderson noted that in the last three decades groundwater contaminants have decreased 85%, pesticides linked to cancer and birth defects have decreased 77% and the use of safer biological pesticide alternatives have increased 720%.

“Accelerating a statewide transition to safer, more sustainable practices requires more though,” she said. “We need broader stakeholder engagement and commitment and ambitious targeted goals.”

DPR has 400 staff and its annual budget is about $147 million, derived from a mill assessment on pesticide sales along with registration and licensing fees and a small percentage of special and federal funds. The Newsom administration has boosted its goals for reducing pesticides through more than $36 million general taxpayer funding approved by the Legislature last year as well as $10 million for the notification system and millions more for air monitoring and work group costs.

Yet in 2013 DPR began spending more than the revenues it collected, due largely to expansions in the scope of the department’s work under the Brown and Newsom administrations as well as escalating costs for state worker benefits and retirements, according Acting Chief Deputy Director Karen Morrison.

Despite senators shooting down the administration’s proposal last year to overhaul the mill assessment to raise revenues, DPR continues to study the potential for such a tiered approach that would levy higher fees for more potent ingredients. Morrison argued that not increasing the mill tax would compromise DPR’s programs, including its effort to reduce pesticide use.

The pandemic has provided a silver lining in DPR’s structural imbalance, in that the mill fees collected an additional $10 million in 2021 due to an increase in disinfectant sales, noted Morrison. The Household and Commercial Products Association, however, expressed frustration that non-agricultural pesticides account for half of the mill revenues while DPR’s grant funding has focused primarily on agricultural practices. Nicole Quiñonez, a policy advocate for the association, pushed back on DPR’s emphasis on the mill tax having remained flat since 2004, noting the amount of revenue has still increased over that time. Quiñonez also requested DPR have reasonable and predictable registration timelines for bringing new products to market to help meet the administration’s transition goals.

Asm. Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, who chairs the Climate Crisis, Resources, Energy and Transportation Budget Subcommittee, shared his hope that the Legislature will help resolve DPR’s structural imbalance this year.

Bloom plans for the committees to hold at least one more informational hearing on DPR’s budget to take a more critical look at “how we can best support them in protecting the environment and public health from the impacts of pesticides.”

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