In recent years, California has been making moves to restrict the use of pesticides like chlorpyrifos. Enforcing those rules and regulations falls to two main entities: the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and county Agricultural Commissioners.
But according to a UC Los Angeles study released to the public on March 20, the DPR and county ag commissioners aren't doing a good enough job enforcing the rules. The study outlines the steps and regulations ag commissioners are required to enforce before permitting the use of restricted pesticides, as determined by CDPR.
Those steps, according to the study, includes determining whether alternative pesticides or mitigation measures would reduce the adverse effects on public health.
The study looked at data from 56 out of 58 California counties between 1997 and 2017. Of those evaluated, 40 percent did not indicate whether or not alternatives or mitigation efforts were included in the process before approving chlorpyrifos for use. Thirty percent of ag commissioners expressed commitment to use alternative pesticides, while the remaining 30 percent exhibited limited commitment to alternatives.
Monterey County falls into the majority and is not taking steps to mitigate the harmful effects of restricted pesticides, says Mark Weller of the organization California Pesticide Reform.
"What's most concerning is that the researchers found that ag commissioners aren't even doing the most basic preliminary work before approving the use of highly toxic pesticides," Weller writes in an email. "Community health just does not seem to be a priority at all."
According to the study, Monterey County had the highest number of cumulative exposure cases in 2015 out of 15 counties considered. That number is 266 cases in which two or three restricted fumigants were sprayed within 72 hours of each other.
Current Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales was not in charge during the time period the UCLA study looks at, but he was the ag commissioner in Ventura County, which had 38 candidate cumulative exposure cases in 2015.
At a March 20 press conference in Salinas, speakers from Center for Farmworker Families, Salinas Elementary Teachers Council and Monterey Bay Central Labor Council called on Gonzales "to do his job."
Gonzales begs to differ, however. "I base all my decisions on the laws and regulations that govern pesticide use and my 35 years of experience as a pesticide regulator," he writes by email.
"It is the U.S. EPA and [California] DPR that have the responsibility to register pesticides and work with scientists to develop use mitigations. It is the Agricultural Commissioner’s responsibility to enforce the mitigations," he continues.
Gonzales adds that he in his position, he's enforced stricter regulations than are mandated on chlorpyrifos because of public concern. And he notes a decrease: Monterey County went from using 140,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos in 2001 to 83 pounds in 2017.
"We are aware and have made our staff aware of the concerns in the community," he adds. "We place additional attention on chlorpyrifos use in response to those concerns."
At the press conference, Greenfield City Councilmember Yanely Martinez pointed out that she lives in the city that uses the most chlorpyrifos in Monterey County. "You guys are eating these vegetables," she said. "Are you demanding to know what's in them?"
The report however also illustrate the trend of California growers moving away from chlorpyrifos. In 2005, growers were using nearly 2 million pounds of the pesticide, compared to approximately 900,000 million pounds in 2016.
CDPR spokesperson Charlotte Fadipe confirms this trend.CDPR deemed chlorpyrifos a restricted material in 2015. This designation required licensing and training and meant the county ag commissioners had to oversee the process.
"Unlike most states, California has a robust pesticide program which involves oversight and input from the federal state and county authorities," Fadipe writes by email. "Most other states do not have localized county input."
In 2018, CDPR issued a proposal to list chlorpyrifos as a toxic air contaminant, 18 years after the EPA banned the substance for household use.
Currently, California still does not have a ban on chlorpyrifos. (Hawaii banned it in 2018, becoming the only statewide ban.)
In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency proposed a federal ban of chlorpyrifos. The EPA later rescinded that proposal in 2017.
Several organizations took the EPA to court over its reversal and in 2018, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the EPA's backtracking, ordering the agency to proceed with banning the substance within 60 days.
In February 2019, the Trump Administration appealed the court's decision. The case will be heard on March 26.