Assemblymember Damon Connolly of San Rafael is raising alarms in the legislature of dangerous pesticides threatening the health and lives of school children in California’s agricultural communities.

He is proposing legislation to add more restrictions on use near schools, triggering a lobbying campaign by county agricultural commissioners to educate lawmakers on a quarter century of state policy actions to protect schools. Farm groups, meanwhile, charge that Connolly’s allegations are not backed up by any documented evidence of exposures.

Assembly Bill 1864 is one of several bills Democrats have been advancing this year and in recent sessions to add further restrictions and costs to pesticide applications. Connolly, who has pushed for incentivizing organic farming practices in other legislation, is backed by nearly 100 environmental interest groups, many of which have been the staunchest critics of California’s pesticide policies.

During debate on his bill, Connolly charged that the state is unable to enforce regulations that prevent applications in adjacent fields during school hours.

“The dangers of pesticide exposure are well documented and alarming,” he said, pointing to studies linking exposure to various types of cancer.

Despite the dire description of the regulatory system, Connolly assured his colleagues that “we are not seeking to plow new ground” with the bill but to simply improve the existing system.

While California has for several decades layered on more rules and restrictions for pesticides beyond federal regulations, it began adding specific protections for schools at the turn of the century, when the Legislature passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2000. The law requires notice to parents of use on school campuses. The Department of Pesticide Regulation later enacted a regulation barring applications of drift-prone pesticides within a quarter mile of schools from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during weekdays. DPR also encourages schools to use softer chemistries and adopt integrated pest management practices.

While California has led the nation in pesticide monitoring and restrictions, environmental justice advocates maintain that the state must do more. In a 2021 letter to DPR, Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) argued they had found “an extraordinarily large number of likely violations” with applications in the buffer zones and worried that the rules apply to public schools but not to private ones.

Josh HuntsingerPlacer County Ag Commissioner Josh Huntsinger

DPR acted by issuing guidance to growers for improving reporting, verification and compliance. It then updated its reporting requirements in January this year. Yet the advocacy group was not satisfied the rules went far enough and turned to Connolly for a legislative fix.

AB 1864 proposes to require notices of intent ahead of applications for nonrestricted materials, specifying the method of application, and to extend all school protections to private facilities with six or more children.

“Of more than a thousand pesticide active ingredients registered for use in California, just 52 are classified as restricted materials,” reasoned Connolly. “That doesn't mean the others are safe.”

Exposures are disproportionately impacting the health of communities of color, according to Bianca Lopez, founder of the environmental justice group Valley Improvement Projects, which is within the CPR coalition.

“Ground truthing by our coalition,” said Lopez, “has revealed some serious issues with enforceability of the regulation.”

Also testifying in support of the measure, high school senior Victor Torres told lawmakers that a spray drift incident at his school for an unrestricted material had triggered an asthma attack and sent him to urgent care. He blamed the herbicide DCPA, which is applied to vegetables and faces suspension by U.S. EPA.

During floor debate last week on AB 1864, Connolly told the full Assembly that “in many ways ag is supporting aspects of this bill,” particularly with providing more specificity on reporting and notifications. He added that ag has not opposed the addition of private schools.

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 More than two dozen agricultural groups have registered their opposition to Connolly’s measure, including county agricultural commissioners.

“Our opposition to this bill is primarily because of the unfunded mandate issue,” said Josh Huntsinger, commissioner for Placer County. “The concept of adding nonrestricted materials and requiring a notice of intent for every nonrestricted material represents a massive new paperwork workload for the agricultural commissioners.”

The California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association (CACASA) has likewise been criticizing the Newsom administration for tasking commissioners with other unfunded mandates.

“It takes my staff out of the field because they'll be reviewing notices of intent and reducing that very field enforcement presence, which is the core of our program,” he said. “It is counter to the intent of the bill, which is to increase safety for school kids.”

Lobbying on behalf of CACASA, Matthew Siverling warned of a “huge workload increase,” since 90% of the pesticides applied in California involve nonrestricted materials. Connolly, however, was unfazed by concerns over more paperwork in the face of what he described as the potential risks to children.

The bill cleared a critical fiscal gauntlet earlier in May, when the Assembly Appropriations Committee determined the state could absorb the additional costs of the regulation, advancing it for a floor vote. The committee added amendments to narrow the scope to a list of pesticides classified as carcinogenic, reproductive toxicants or toxic air contaminants.

Aside from costs, Chris Reardon, who directs government affairs at the California Farm Bureau, took issue with the basic need for the bill.

“There hasn't been any evidence—one documented incident—of pesticide drift on a school site that DPR is aware of,” said Reardon. “Many people don't realize that farmers in schools located in agricultural areas have a long history of communicating with one another, particularly when it comes to pesticide applications occurring in their areas. This happens each and every day all over this state.”

He pointed out that DPR works with commissioners to develop a work plan every year for school protections and suggested that would be “a good vehicle to work out some of these discussions.”

Noting similar concerns to those over a pending statewide alert system for applications, Reardon said AB 1864 would overwhelm the reporting system, since farmers would err on the side of caution and ensure compliance by submitting more reports, regardless of whether they ultimately follow through with the applications. It would result in more inspections by commissioners and more money for their staff time, he explained.

The agricultural coalition also took issue with the added complexity of expanding the regulations to private schools. The state and commissioners do not maintain a list of private school sites near farms and would need that geographical data in a GIS format to implement the law. The coalition is urging lawmakers to first work with the state’s education department on developing a GIS map identifying the schools.

The concerns were enough to persuade Republicans to strongly oppose the bill. Assembly Minority Leader James Gallagher called Connolly’s arguments scare tactics.

“Pesticides and herbicides in agriculture have been safely applied for decades—for generations—in these rural areas,” said Gallagher, who hails from a farming family. “You're adding all kinds of requirements on us. It's already really difficult for us to continue to go on in this state.”

Gallagher noted that the bill would not add any new regulations for residential pesticide use, which faces far fewer restrictions than agricultural use.

“You might want to be more worried about what people are applying completely unregulated in your urban districts next to schools,” he said. “That might be something you should be more concerned about, rather than worrying about a lot of the schools of my district.”

While Gallagher’s pleas failed to block the bill from advancing to the Senate, several Democrats abstained from voting, indicating a potential reluctance to endorse the measure.

Senate policy committees will soon take up AB 1864 for more debate.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the Healthy Schools Act barred applications within a quarter mile of schools. That was later added as a separate regulation in 2016.

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