EPA’s Chemistry Lesson
Teachers call for CalSTRS to divest from methyl iodide.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked for it, and it’s most certainly getting it.
In March, the same federal agency that in 2007 approved the controversial soil fumigant methyl iodide decided it would take public comment on a petition – filed by the environmental law group Earthjustice, with a little prodding from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – to reconsider that same approval.
Depending on who you ask, methyl iodide is a developmental neurotoxin and cancer agent, or completely safe and the only hope for California’s $2 billion strawberry industry to remain competitive.
The comments against the fumigant thus far number in the hundreds, with some including thousands upon thousands of individual signatures, such as the 97,000 signatures from CREDO Mobile’s Action Network calling on the EPA to suspend its registration.
Food Democracy Now, the Iowa-based sustainable food and farming group, collected more than 37,000 messages, also asking the EPA to yank the plug and tell Arysta LifeScience, the patent-holder and manufacturer of the product registered as MIDAS, to find something else to do.
There are plenty of pro-methyl iodide comments as well. Farmers are angry, some rightfully so, that while they can no longer use the ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide without a “critical use exemption,” the EPA is now reconsidering what has been portrayed as the strawberry industry’s next best hope for battling nematodes, fungi and pests that threaten crops, profits and jobs.
Comments were supposed to be closed on April 25. For reasons the EPA refuses to reveal (Weekly reporter Sara Rubin asked, they said no, Rubin said a Freedom of Information Act request is on its way), the agency extended the comment period to May 13. With the extension comes comments from some very notable parties.
Arysta’s Regulatory Affairs Lead Dana E. Sargent writes that the petition carries no proof of any new science, that California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation’s peer review panel (which weighed in against methyl iodide’s approval) “exceeded its authority, offered opinion beyond its expertise in some instances, and allowed the presentation of ‘imaginary data’ by one of the petitioners.”
Sargent doesn’t name names though, which is a pity. Arysta spokeswoman Charissa Acree recently told freelance journalist Kelly Benjamin that the head of that peer review panel, UCLA Professor John Froines, was tried as a member of the 1960s radical group The Chicago Seven. She’s probably forgetting the part where Froines was acquitted on all charges. She’s stopped returning our calls, so we can’t ask her.
Comments also came in from U.C. Berkeley Professor Robert Bergman, who in 2007 collected 54 signatures from his science buddies – including a few Nobel Prize-winning friends – warning the EPA that registering methyl iodide could put people at serious risk.
Then there are the teachers.
Last December, the Weekly broke the news that the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) has nearly $1 billion invested in a private equity fund called Permira, which funds Arysta. In March, the smaller of California’s two teachers’ unions – the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers – issued a resolution at its annual meeting calling for CalSTRS to divest from Permira unless Arysta stops manufacturing MIDAS – or until Permira dumps Arysta.
“This action is critical because it directly protects teachers, school employees, schoolchildren… but also protects teachers’ retirements funds tied to Permira/Arysta from risk of future litigation,” the resolution states.
CalSTRS appears to be taking the request seriously.
Chief Investment Officer Christopher Ailman, who runs CalSTRS $120 billion investment portfolio, tells Rubin he’s already met with Permira – and is meeting with them again next week – based on the growing teachers’ unrest. The Bergman letter in particular, Ailman says, “makes very compelling the dangers of this particular chemical.”
Arysta has big plans for California, Permira told Ailman. The company expects 7 percent of California’s strawberry fields to use MIDAS this year, doubling to 15 percent by next year. Only one MIDAS permit has been requested in California; that permit, issued in Ventura County, was pulled the next day when the county ag commissioner discovered the field was a half-mile from a playground.
Ailman believes the Permira investment will hold up to scrutiny, but says if CalSTRS decides the investment violates its human health standards, it might sell the shares. It’s done so with tobacco.
Depending on what the EPA decides in the coming weeks, it might make the CalSTRS decision that much easier.
MARY DUAN is the editor of the Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. SARA RUBIN provided additional reporting for this column.