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California pushes forward with statewide pesticide notification system as Shafter project stalls

Overspray 1

In this 2017 file photo, Heike Duran, a graphic artist at the Kern County Public Health Services Department, rinses her eyes from a hose during a pesticide overspray training exercise near Wasco.

What began as a Shafter initiative aimed at notifying local residents about farmers' plans to apply pesticides nearby is increasingly shaping up to be a statewide project that may or may not have a separate Kern County parallel activists are fighting for.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation said by email Tuesday the agency is in the beginning stages of a rule-making process that could begin gathering public input this summer.

That doesn't rule out creation of a local version the state continues to push for in coordination with members of a clean-air committee set up in Shafter. That effort has come to a virtual standstill after a county official refused to turn over local growers' notices of intent to treat their crops with any of several cancer-causing fumigants.

It's unclear what the differences would be if two versions ultimately emerge. But local activists say both initiatives should proceed.

"Both the state and local projects are needed" because the statewide effort was designed to be a pilot study demonstrating the feasibility of a statewide effort, said Gustavo Aguirre Jr., Kern projects coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network.

But an association of county agricultural commissioners says a statewide approach is preferable, mainly because it avoids DPR's "unprecedented" attempt to force a county official to turn over local notices.

The association has supported the position of Kern Ag Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser, who with the backing of local growers has defied the DPR's request to turn over advance notices of fumigation events, saying that information might be misused by anti-pesticide activists elsewhere.

"We do feel like perhaps a statewide conversation on this particular issue would be more appropriate," said Josh Huntsinger, president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association. He noted that "the conversation has begun" on a statewide rule that could take longer to set up than the state expected the Shafter pilot to take.

DPR spokeswoman Abbott Dutton said by email both projects will improve enforcement of pesticide requirements to protect public health and safety and enhance public transparency.

The agency is ready, she noted, to work with all community members and local officials to implement a Shafter pilot that originated in 2017's Assembly Bill 617, which gave local committees like the one in Shafter resources to come up with local air-quality measures.

The committee's work attempted to widen distribution of existing notices that farmers share with other farmers in order to reduce chances their workers might accidentally be exposed to dangerous chemicals.

But farmers and Fankhauser have resisted the group's push to publish farmer notifications on a state website. They say activists could use that information to fight farmers' ability to use pesticides. They have offered a limited compromise committee members have rejected.

Dutton asserted a local pilot would be helpful in informing the statewide effort — and that the agency continues to work toward the Shafter project. She noted the next step will be public workshops.

"We won't know the specifics of the proposal until we hear from the public," Dutton wrote.

Statewide notifications could begin quickly, depending on what the department is planning to do. But if the idea is ultimately to send out alerts to people who have indicated they want to be notified of spraying plans, that could take longer, said Jane Sellen, Berkeley-based co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Byanka Santoyo, a member of the Shafter committee who also serves as a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said the local effort should carry on, and that state officials should force a local resolution, because it represents a hard-fought project for community residents.

"It should stay back rooted to what it is," she said. "It's a community effort."