Wash. Retreats from Pesticide Notice Rule

Published April 1, 2006

In the face of reported disinterest and outright opposition, the Washington state Department of Agriculture has withdrawn a proposal to require farmers to notify all area schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and day care centers when applying pesticides on their fields.

Issue Remains in Play

But the fight is not over. A bill that would overrule the department and impose the notification requirement has been introduced in the state Senate. And the department has been accused of misrepresenting a survey that supposedly revealed a lack of interest in the notification by schools and other institutions.

The department said in a December 30 news release that public feedback on the proposal was “sharply divided on the value and need for the rule.”

The news release stated, “those organizations that would receive the notifications played little role in developing the proposed rule. [The department] received very little input from local school and hospital administrators and others despite extensive outreach to request their participation. A follow-up phone survey to principals of 58 schools in the Yakima and Wenatchee areas did not produce any consensus about the value of the proposed rule.”

Pilot Program Possible

The Agriculture Department said it took three years of hearings and meetings with growers, community leaders, and environmental groups to come up with the conclusion. Still, department director Valoria Loveland said the department would consider proposing a “similar pilot rule” for a selected portion of the state.

“The environmental community believed this rule didn’t go far enough, while growers thought it created unnecessary regulation when it is already illegal to allow drift of these pesticides,” Loveland said.

She also raised a legal issue: Those who were to be notified would be exposed to liability if they did not pass the information along to their students, patients, and customers, but it was unclear what the institutions were required to do, such as dismiss school, when notified.

“[The department] has no enforcement authority or even ability to provide guidance to school districts, nursing homes, or other entities about their legal responsibility under this proposed rule,” Loveland said.

Activists Criticize Decision

The decision was criticized by Carol Dansereau, director of the nonprofit Farm Worker Pesticide Project. “If the Department of Agriculture can’t even take this baby step forward, what can they do to protect health?” she asked, according to a December 30 Associated Press story. Growers, who had argued the proposal was burdensome and unnecessary, welcomed the decision.

But not long after the decision, a newspaper, the Wenatchee World, said the Agriculture Department had mischaracterized the survey of the 58 school principals. Conducting its own interviews and review of the survey, the newspaper said only 33 of the 48 institutions it polled were schools, and the respondents were sometimes as low-ranking as secretaries or maintenance workers. The World claimed 25 institutions were “interested” in spray notifications, 18 were not, two said maybe, and three had no opinion.

Jason Kelly, Agriculture Department spokesman, acknowledged the results were “mischaracterized” in the agency’s news release because of a breakdown in communications between his office and the department’s pesticide management program.

However, the department’s decision to withdraw the notification proposal stood, which prompted some lawmakers to introduce a bill (SB 6607) that would enact into law the provisions of the Department of Agriculture’s proposal. The bill is pending action by the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee.

Notice Carries Little Value

The proposal and its demise raised the issue of “junk science.” Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, criticized the Washington proposal prior to the decision as having “absolutely no basis in scientific fact.”

After the decision, Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini said the risks of such low-level spraying are negligible. “These products are tested extensively and regulated heavily to ensure that even extremely high level, short-term exposures pose little to no risk.

“Notification has no real public health value,” Logomasini added, noting that delaying the application of pesticides can “produce serious crop damage resulting in substantial losses for farmers. The only ones who appear to want notification are environmental activists who use such notification laws to scare the public about chemicals, which for some reason they don’t want used under any considerations, even when these products provide important benefits to society.”

Dennis Byrne ([email protected]) is a Chicago writer.