Opponents of methyl iodide to sue by month’s end, claim political motivation behind emergency regs.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
California strawberry growers got final emergency approval from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation Dec. 20 to deploy controversial soil fumigant methyl iodide – for use mostly in the strawberry industry – despite the protests of farm worker activists, environmentalists and local Assemblyman Bill Monning.
The chemical, to be marketed under the name Midas, soon will be available to zap fungi and nematodes in local soil. But activists hope to reverse the state decision before the fumigation season begins next spring.
Attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance and Earth Justice Network plan to challenge the approval of methyl iodide in court and file suit by the end of the month. Paul Towers, of Pesticide Watch Education Fund, says he and fellow activists are also hoping for a sympathetic hearing from incoming Gov. Jerry Brown, who could place a moratorium on the use of methyl iodide or ask the DPR to review its decision.
“Nobody is disputing the inherent lethal potential of methyl iodide,” Monning says, adding that regulators haven’t disputed that it causes cancer or birth defects, or contaminates water supplies.
“The debate centers on whether it can be applied safely… My fear is they can’t guarantee 100 percent safety and the risk is so great that when there are accidents, they can be devastating.”
Towers argues the fast-track approval came because of a political emergency, not an agricultural one.
“Ask anyone why it needed to be approved by Dec. 20, and you can’t get an answer because there isn’t one,” says Towers. “Clearly there was an effort to register this before an administration that was less dependent on the chemical industry took office.”
No direct comment on the swipe from DPR’s Lea Brooks. She says, “We have followed the regulatory process, and methyl iodide is the most evaluated pesticide in the department’s history,” and adds that it’s gone through risk assessment and peer review since 2007.
DPR’s decision doesn’t identify the emergency requiring the immediate use of methyl iodide, but it says such regulations are essential to ensure it can be used safely in California.
In a supplemental finding, state officials note that methyl iodide is considered a replacement for methyl bromide, a commonly used soil fumigant that must be phased out by 2015 because it’s been shown to damage the earth’s ozone layer.
Monning, who chairs the Assembly Health Committee, argues the 2015 phase-out date allows enough time to follow the normal regulatory process.
“I find it ironic that an emergency regulation that’s designed to protect the public health is being used to jeopardize the public health,” Monning says.
But in North Carolina, Jeff Tweedy, head of business development for Midas-maker Arysta LifeScience Corp., says he thinks methyl iodide can be applied safely as he says it has throughout the Southeastern U.S. on tomatoes, peppers and cut flowers.
“We’re really excited we’ve cleared this regulatory hurdle,” Tweedy says. “Growers have a need and see where [methyl iodide] is going to fit.”
If methyl iodide passes court muster and gets the nod from Brown, Carolyn O’Donnell of the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission says it’s costly, and comes with a series of regulations that could limit its use.
“My understanding is it’s not cheap,” O’Donnell says. “The buffer zones (between fields, homes and schools) are pretty wide. There’s a lot of restrictions.”