An accidental release of a strawberry fumigant in 2009 sickened some North County residents; with another potentially deadly pesticide just approved, is the Ag Commission tough enough to protect us?
Thursday, December 9, 2010
On Oct. 31 last year, Royal Oaks resident Terrie Mengo had a frightening experience, but it was no Halloween prank. She returned home that evening from visiting her mother in a San Jose hospital to feed her four horses. Before she reached the corral just down the hill from her house, her eyes began burning and brimming with tears.
“My eyes were pouring out water,” she says. “It was like I was bawling. My face was burning. I could taste a funny taste.”
She tossed food to the horses – whose eyes also were streaming – as fast as she could and headed for the safety of her car.
“I thought, what the hell is going on?” Mengo says. “It was like tear gas.”
At home, her husband Mark sat in front of the TV, a wet towel covering his face.
The Bonney Road subdivision off San Miguel Canyon Road where Mengo and her husband live is a tree-shaded refuge where acres of land surround big houses, and a gate keeps out unwanted visitors.
Mengo’s household wasn’t the only one afflicted with strange symptoms that Saturday night. Neighbor Dan Rounsevell was out pulling weeds until he was driven indoors by his burning eyes.
Down the road, John Hodges’ two grown sons and a couple of their friends were outside his house starting a Halloween celebration when their eyes also started burning. Hodges says their throats were irritated, and they had a metallic taste in their mouths.
He later told county officials that the pain lasted for four hours before it began to let up.
“It felt like someone threw a tear gas canister on my property,” Hodges says, according to the Monterey County Agricultural Commission report on the incident.
Other neighbors reported similar symptoms.
Hodges, who had long kept a close eye on the chemicals used on a hillside strawberry field adjacent to his home, correctly suspected a leak from a fumigation of the soil earlier in the day. He immediately called the Aromas Fire District, the Ag Commissioner’s office and the grower, Herlindo Rocha Jr. of Rocha Farms.
That morning, chloropicrin, which was first deployed by the Germans in WWI as a chemical weapon and is still used in making tear gas, was injected beneath the surface of the soil to zap fungi and root-destroying insects.
Label instructions warn that chloropicrin causes tearing, eye and skin irritation and a sore throat. At very high concentrations, it can bring on vomiting, bronchitis or pulmonary edema, an abnormal build up of fluid in the lungs that can lead to respiratory failure.
In recent years, some Central Coast residents have maintained a fragile relationship with the state’s $2.1 billion strawberry industry, which has relied on fumigants like chloropicrin and methyl bromide to keep yields high. Salinas – and Watsonville-area growers produced 41 percent of the state’s strawberry crop in 2010.
A new fumigant just registered by the state, though, may make the potentially harmful effects of chloropicrin seem tame by comparison.
Registered under the trade name “Midas,” methyl iodide is a neurotoxin. It’s used in lab settings to induce cancer in mice. It’s been linked to late-stage miscarriages. And its 2007 approval nationwide by the Bush administration led 24 California legislators and a group of 54 scientists – including five Nobel laureates – to object.
On Dec. 1, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation’s approval of methyl iodide, which under California law is considered a carcinogen, means the fumigant could soon be permitted in California’s agricultural fields. It’s an alternative to methyl bromide, which is being phased out worldwide because of its role in ozone depletion.
Of concern: Ag Commission staffers say they inspected just 1 percent of the 120,000 pesticide applications the county oversaw last year.
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S tate Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam encourages citizens to take heart in expanded regulation for methyl iodide. She says her department’s approval of the carcinogen comes with stricter buffer zones; a requirement that only DPR-approved, highly retentive tarps be used; greater groundwater protections; reduced application rates; and stronger protections for workers.
“Methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the department’s history,” Warmerdam says in a statement. “Methyl iodide can be used safely under our tough restrictions by only highly trained applicators at times, places and specific conditions approved by the county agricultural commissioners.”
Local Assemblyman Bill Monning disagrees. “It’s a known carcinogen and a groundwater contaminant,” he says. “I’m going to join my colleagues to request an immediate ban.”
In recent weeks, Monning, who chairs the Assembly Health committee, teamed up with anti-pesticide activists in a failed, eleventh-hour effort to keep methyl iodide out of California’s fields. He’s now calling on Governor-elect Jerry Brown to reverse the state Department of Pesticide Regulation decision.
The Pesticide Research Institute’s Susan Kegley, an organic chemist and a methyl iodide opponent, says the activists have grounds to mount a court challenge to the chemical’s approval under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Still, if those efforts are unsuccessful, in the coming months the chemical may become the newest weapon in Monterey County agriculture’s pest-fighting arsenal.
It would fall to the county Ag Commission, which is charged with overseeing pesticide use, to enforce a new, stringent set of state rules for methyl iodide use.
Ag Commission critics argue its dual mission of both promoting agriculture – and policing it – make it a timid regulator. For those who doubt the agency’s current effectiveness, the planned introduction of methyl iodide raises fresh questions about the commission’s resources and political will to do the job.
County Ag Commissioner Eric Lauritzen, though, doesn’t hesitate to declare himself a regulator, not a booster: “We make sure pesticides are used consistent with the label and the law. We have a very clear-cut, well-defined role.”
Lauritzen, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors, oversees a $9 million budget and says nearly 30 percent of it is spent on pesticide regulation. Lauritzen began his career working for a flower grower after earning a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from UC Davis. “I love growing plants and I wanted to be a grower,” Lauritzen says. But despite his affinity for the industry, he says, “We’re here to enforce the law.”
Chief Deputy Ag Commissioner Karen Stahlman, who has spent a nearly 30-year career in pesticide regulation at the county and state levels, and is considered even by her critics to be extremely knowledgeable, says she has no concerns about the commission’s ability to oversee the use of methyl iodide.
PRI’s Kegley counters that, overall, “California agricultural commissions are ill-prepared to deal with a gas that will blanket our state’s fields.”
New state rules are much more complex than anything county ag commissions currently enforce, Kegley says. For example, she says state regulations call for hourly air monitoring during methyl iodide fumigations.
“What technologies are going to be used to monitor [the air]? Who’s going to be checking to make sure they actually do that monitoring?” she asks. “All of this is costing tax dollars and requires funding. We all know funding for counties is way down.”
County Assistant Ag Commissioner Bob Roach acknowledges questions remain about how the new restrictions – including bigger buffer zones and smaller fumigation areas – will be implemented, but he doesn’t think the new rules will create an unmanageable financial burden.
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At California Rural Legal Assistance, attorney Michael Marsh argues that for years, the commission has acted more as an industry lapdog than watchdog. He says it is so ineffective at protecting workers who are exposed to pesticides that, after five years with CRLA’s Agricultural Worker’s Health Project, he’s stopped going to the Ag Commission with complaints.
Marsh points to the Ag Commission’s own statistics to prove regulation is lax.
In addition to looking into just 1 percent of the 120,000 pesticide applications in 2009, the commission issued nearly 700 pesticide permits to county growers in 2008 (the last year for which complete yearly statistical reports are available), and denied just four.
When growers plan to use the most potentially hazardous pesticides, they must file for county approval 24 hours in advance, showing, among other things, that they’ll maintain a safe distance from homes, schools and environmentally sensitive sites.
The commission can nix such pesticide applications if growers’ plans aren’t in order, but in 2008, it approved 16,000 so-called notices of intent and denied just one.
Stahlman argues that the stark numbers don’t tell the whole story; staffers often work informally with growers in advance to get their notices of intent right, she says.
When it comes to enforcement against those who break the law, the county issued 28 violations in 2008, and fined 26 violators. In three years, the county has held no hearings and referred a single case to the county District Attorney, in 2006.
“You can’t find what you’re not looking for,” Marsh says.
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In its investigation of last year’s Bonney Road accident, county ag officials were looking, and they uncovered a handful of state law violations by each of the companies involved, as well as a cascade of errors in the accident’s aftermath.
Still, county officials failed to sift through conflicting statements to determine exactly why chloropicrin seeped into the air last Oct. 31 and sickened eight residents.
Some witnesses report seeing a rip in the tarp that covered the fumigated area; one source familiar with the incident posited that a deer running across the tarp caused the rip, but that escaped notice of the worker Rocha had assigned to watch the field that night.
Others – the grower Rocha and Bruce Kingston of Soilfume Inc., a Watsonville fumigation company, both of whom were called to the scene the night of the incident – told county ag officials they didn’t see one.
Stahlman theorizes that in the absence of a rip in the tarp, the unusually still air the night of the incident could have caused chloropicrin that escaped from the ground to remain in the air, instead of dissipating as it would on a windier night. She also says a torn tarp wouldn’t have constituted a violation of law.
County ag officials began their investigation of the Saturday night incident the following Monday – and received much of their information secondhand. The firefighters who initially responded that night decided it was unnecessary to immediately notify county officials, Stahlman says.
All three companies involved were found to have violated state pesticide regulations.
The most serious incident involves the plastic tarps that covered the recently fumigated field. When chloropicrin is used, the plastic must remain in place for the first 48 hours after fumigation, after which it is usually cut open by a tarp-removal service.
Methyl bromide fumigation requires a longer interval.
But county officials found that on Bonney Road, Fernandez Brothers, the tarp-removal company, cut the plastic several hours before it was safe to do so because they didn’t know exactly what time to remove it.
Soilfume had failed to provide that information to the grower, who was supposed to pass it on to Fernandez Brothers, according to the report issued after the county’s investigation.
“I just went by the dates,” company owner Jose Antonio Fernandez told county ag staffers. He reported that the tarp was cut some three hours before it was safe to do so.
County staffers also found that Fernandez, who says he’s been in the tarp-pulling business for 16 years, didn’t keep adequate records, like logs of fumigation times and dates.
The report notes that Kingston arrived at the field after residents called Rocha and the fire department. It also states Kingston didn’t bring equipment to measure the concentration of chloropicrin in the air. He left to pick it up, and when he returned he said that it registered no detectable chloropicrin levels.
Anne Katten, a Sacramento-based industrial hygienist with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, calls the county ag commission “sloppy” in not noting the sensitivity of the air monitoring device Kingston used, and where he was when he took the reading.
At least one Bonney Road resident questions why Kingston would be allowed to conduct tests on his own fumigation gone awry. Stahlman says the commission doesn’t do air monitoring, and leaves it to pesticide applicators.
Reached by phone, Kingston refuses to discuss the matter. “I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to talk to you,” he says. “I’m hanging up.”
Kingston told investigators that he didn’t carefully examine the tarp for holes that Saturday night, or attempt to repair it because it would have been unsafe for him to don the necessary breathing apparatus and walk on a sloping field in the dark alone.
“If I fell I could get hit in the head [with the tank]… ,” he’s quoted as saying in the county’s report.
After the Bonney Road incident, Stahlman says this year the county tightened its rules for handling chloropicrin. Fumigation is no longer permitted on days when particularly low wind speeds are forecast, and growers are now required to maintain tarp-repair plans.
Soilfume, which is one of two major companies that conducts soil fumigations in Monterey County, was fined $1,100. Rocha was cited for having the tarp removed too early, but not fined because the early removal didn’t contribute to the residents’ symptoms. Fernandez Brothers was counseled by an ag commission biologist, who addressed the need to keep records.
Soilfume has five violations in the last two years on its record in Monterey County, while Rocha Farms has four. Stahlman says Soilfume also is under investigation for its role in an Oct. 2010 Salinas case in which D’Arrigo Brothers workers in a neighboring field got sick when the wind raised a nearby tarp, uncovering a recently fumigated strawberry patch.
While Soilfume’s location puts it outside Monterey County’s jurisdiction, Monterey County ag staffers plan to participate in an audit of the company by the Santa Cruz County Ag Commission, Stahlman says.
The commission levies relatively modest fines for pesticide violations, and does so sparingly. The maximum for a violation of state pesticide law is $5,000 and the commission levied about $14,000 in fines in 2008. But Stahlman insists that growers take the penalties seriously: “They aren’t just a cost of doing business.”
More than a year after she was exposed to chloropicrin at her Royal Oaks home, Terrie Mengo says the breathing problems that began five years ago when she moved in have worsened. She’s been diagnosed with asthma and a doctor has prescribed an inhaler.
“It was brutal that night,” she says, adding that it eventually got so bad that she left for the night. Her husband stayed home to tend to the sickened horses.
At the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell says the commission has invested $13 million to develop experimental pest control methods so possibly one day, extremely toxic chemicals could be unnecessary. The expected phase-out of methyl bromide in 2015 was the initial impetus for the testing.
Among the commission’s experiments: incorporating broccoli leavings into the soil. They decay and create a mild form of nontoxic gas that resembles the commercially available and highly toxic pesticide metam sodium. Other potential technologies include a soil-steaming machine shown to be effective in Italy, but less so in California.
Still, with methyl iodide on the horizon, it’s possible that natural pest control may take a back seat to chemicals that promise quick, predictable results.
“Hopefully, we’ll have trouble-free fumigations,” says the Ag Commission’s Bob Roach. 0