Companies: Proposal would take 7 million
acres of farmland
By PHILIP BRASHER
WASHINGTON 4/9/02 -- The government wants to restrict where and how farmers may spray their crops, a move intended to prevent pesticides from poisoning farm workers as well as residents of suburbs that are rapidly expanding into agricultural areas.
Pesticide companies are fighting the proposal, saying the standards sought by the Environmental Protection Agency are unwarranted and would cause 7 million acres of farmland to be taken out of production.
Under rules that would be spelled out on pesticide containers, the chemicals could not be allowed to drift on people, animals, homes, buildings, parks, wetlands, forests, pastures or crops for which the spray is not intended. The labels would specify equipment sizes, the wind conditions under which spraying can take place and the maximum distances from crops that spray can be released.
"Families of farmers and farm workers are often in the direct line of fire of pesticides applied in agricultural areas," said Gina Solomon of the National Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
The EPA said the label rules will reduce the risks from pesticides without hurting farmers. But the agency recently told the House Agriculture Committee that the standards, first proposed in August, will be revised before they are made final.
States receive about 2,500 complaints a year about pesticide drift and take enforcement actions on about 800 of them annually. The EPA says there probably are many more incidents that go unreported.
In 1999, 180 people in California's San Joaquin Valley were forced to evacuate when they were overcome by fumes from the spraying of a potato field. Months later, about 30 people still had respiratory problems, headaches and dizziness.
In 2000, a herbicide that workers for the Bureau of Land Management were spraying on federal property in Idaho drifted onto nearby farmland and caused $100 million in damage to potato, wheat and sugar beet crops.
Critics of the rules question whether the problem is as serious as the EPA thinks, and say the proposed standards do not take into account differences in topography and equipment.
In California, the number of spray-drift incidents in which at least one person was exposed to a pesticide dropped from 94 in 1995 to 41 in 2000, the latest year for which figures are available.
In comments filed with the EPA last week, the pesticide industry said the rules would set a "zero-drift" policy for pesticide use that cannot be achieved.
"I just haven't heard where there are real problems with drift," said Paul Wenger, a licensed pesticide applicator who grows walnuts and almonds near Modesto, Calif. "People are very cognizant not to spray when conditions are such that there should be some kind of drift."
Wenger says the EPA's proposed rules are too strict. For example, pesticides could be sprayed only when winds are between 3 mph and 10 mph -- on the theory that some breeze is needed to disperse the chemical but not too much to carry the spray into unwanted areas. Regulations in Wenger's area set a maximum wind speed but no minimum.
Paul Gosselin, chief deputy director of California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, says federal rules are needed because states are not allowed to regulate pesticide labels.
Having uniform standards nationwide "is better from our perspective as regulators but also for the industry," he said.
n On the Net:
Environmental Protection Agency Office of Pesticide Programs: http://www.epa.gov/opppmsd1/PR--Notices/prdraft-spraydrift801.htm
CropLife America (pesticide industry trade group): http://www.croplifeamerica.com
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