LOCAL SPIN: Symbolic Gestures
Supes vote to send a pointless methyl iodide message.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Just when you think you know exactly what the Monterey County Board of Supervisors is going to do, they go ahead and do the exact opposite thing. And no, I’m not talking about Tuesday’s 180-degree turnaround of the decision to chop down a few thousand oak trees to build a new headquarters for Monterey-Salinas Transit on the former Fort Ord (see story, p. 8).
I’m talking about the astonishing decision they made earlier that day to ignore the recommendation of county Ag Commissioner Eric Lauritzen and make what appears to be a 100 percent symbolic gesture urging Gov. Jerry Brown to reexamine the registration of the controversial fumigant methyl iodide. By a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Lou Calcagno offering a passionate yet measured dissent in defense of farming, the supes are taking the same recommendation written by the Santa Cruz County supes more than four months ago, switching out those names for theirs, and sending it on to Brown.
What’s ironic about the supes making this move now is that any day, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch could rule in a lawsuit brought by California Rural Legal Assistance and the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice against the state Department of Pesticide Registration and methyl maker Arysta LifeScience.
The suit questions the legality of the methyl iodide registration. On Jan. 12, Roesch asked defense attorneys one very pointed question: Did regulators, operating under California’s Environmental Quality Act, consider alternatives to not approving methyl iodide? “Absent that,” Roesch said, “I don’t see how you can prevail in this lawsuit.” But he agreed to receive briefs on the matter, and he’s considering those now.
The supes’ move came after they declined to take a stance on the fumigant in November. Supervisor Simon Salinas instead directed Lauritzen to hold a series of stakeholder meetings that brought community interests and ag interests together to see if the could find common ground on methyl iodide. The meetings, while facilitated by Lauritzen, were not noticed subject to the Brown Act, were not open to the public and were held at the Salinas offices of the powerful ag lobby group Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. It was only revealed Tuesday that the United Farm Workers pushed away from that stakeholder table and declined to participate in the mettings.
In light of the Roesch’s pending decision, Lauritzen recommended the supes take a wait-and-watch position.
So… they wait four months to merely cut and paste, after their counsel advises them to wait. Hmmm.
Other stakeholders told the supes to hold off too – for different reasons, and with messages of their own. Third-generation strawberry grower Mark Murai, head of the California Strawberry Commission that represents farmers growing 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries, described the feeling of walking through a disease-ridden field, with limited berries on the plants, and with pickers coming to him asking how they can pay their bills with such little fruit on the vine. Norm Groot, executive director of the 400-member Monterey County Farm Bureau, wondered why the supes would rush into a decision that has no bearing and makes a political statement.
But Ag attorney Jeff Gilles, who had farmer clients sitting in the audience, said if the supes sent Brown a message, it would reverberate across the country.
“We are the vegetable and strawberry capital of the world. What the board does here affects all of agriculture and sets the tone both in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.,” Gilles said. “Any decision by this board will have an impact on agriculture.”
The state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation was left headless for nearly a year, when the pesticide-industry-loving Mary-Ann Warmerdam – who in 2010 ignored the DPR’s scientific review panel frantically urging her to wave off on the methyl iodide registration – departed last March for a job with Clorox. Brown just appointed a new DPR chief. Brian Leahy, former assistant director at the California Department of Conservation and a veteran organic farmer, has methyl iodide at the top of his list of things to do.
I hope Gilles is right about the supes’ message reverberating. It would be great to see a decision by Leahy and Brown to reconsider the backassward way the DPR ignored its own scientists to get methyl iodide approved. And I empathize with Murai. Nobody wants to see ag die on the vine. And nobody wants to see farmworkers suffer, either economically from having less fruit to pick, or health-wise, from working in fields treated with a fumigant that DPR’s own scientists say was approved via backroom political maneuvering with no regard to its impact on health.
Mary Duan is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.