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Pesticide study renews conflict between growers, environmental justice groups

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The pilot of this crop duster lays down a mist of spray while making a pass over a field in this 2014 file photo.

Controversy has again soured relations between local growers and environmental-justice activists, this time over concerns related to a three-county study of pesticides' effects on rural air quality.

Central Valley agricultural officials have accused activist groups of planning to skew the research by sending individuals equipped with air-monitoring equipment into areas being treated with harmful chemicals.

The groups deny any such plans and counter that they are the victims of misinformation and racist attacks from farmers acting as though they have something to hide.

The flare-up has coincided with a stalemate between Kern's agricultural commissioner and members of a Shafter committee pushing for advance notification of growers' plans to treat their fields with pesticides. Even though the conflict has given root to a statewide initiative that would accomplish many of the same goals, its lack of resolution has created tensions some say set the stage for the more recent clash.

'URGENT ADVISORY'

Things came to a head late last month with an "urgent advisory" by Tulare County's agricultural commissioner for growers to "be on the lookout" for trespassers during and immediately after chemical applications on fields and orchards.

The letter shared suspicions the Central California Environmental Justice Network was recruiting volunteers "who are potentially planning to carry backpacks through orchards and fields" to gather unrepresentative data. Citing risks to the volunteers and the properties they might enter, Ag Commissioner Tom Tucker's June 22 advisory offered his office's phone number and that of the county sheriff.

A second advisory distributed July 6 by Tucker's office and that of the California Environmental Protection Agency clarified that recruitment by CCEJN and Californians for Pesticide Reform was part of a partnership with the University of California, Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center, whose air-monitoring study was funded by the California Air Resources Board.

The clarification emphasized no one participating in the study has been told to enter private property, and that there have been no confirmed reports of anyone attempting to do so.

The UC Davis research is touted as the first to measure chemicals directly in the breathing zone of residents living near areas where pesticides are applied. It is the latest in a series of studies that have brought together the university's environmental health department with Central Valley activist groups critical of grower practices.

ROUTINE ACTIVITY

About three dozen volunteers have been asked to wear backpack-mounted air-monitoring equipment for about 12 hours per day while they go about their regular routine for three days.

Lead researcher Deborah Bennett intends to test the volunteers' samples for more than 25 chemicals. She said the results will be reported to CARB and likely published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. CARB said by email the study may help bridge gaps in the state's monitoring network and that credible results may be used to inform policy decisions and the agency's future actions.

Bennett said she has never experienced such interest in her work and that she views Tucker's initial advisory as a mischaracterization. She said she trusts the participants' honesty and doesn't think anyone would purposely expose themselves to pesticides, adding that she asked CCEJN and CPR to help with recruitment because she doesn't know anyone living in the three subject counties.

Even if a participant did seek out air samples in freshly sprayed ag fields, she said, it likely would not produce inaccurate results because exposure would have to last hours to make a significant impact on the data.

Still, with pesticides a sensitive topic in Kern lately, the study has stoked misgivings among the county's ag community.

LINGERING TENSIONS

Last year a legislatively mandated group in Shafter tried to force Kern's ag commissioner, Glenn Fankhauser, to turn over local growers' notices of their intent to apply certain dangerous fungicides. Already that information is shared among local farmers as a way to limiting risks someone might be accidentally exposed.

But Fankhauser, supported by local growers, has refused to share the notices out of concern the information might later be used to oppose farmers' applications to use such chemicals. Instead, he proposed posting notices on the doors of people living near areas where the chemicals are used — but not turning over a list that can be posted online, as the group insists is more appropriate.

Angry with his refusal, members of the Shafter committee have called on state officials to have him fired. While that effort has proved unsuccessful, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation is moving forward with a similar project that is expected to lead to a statewide notification program.

On July 7, Fankhauser put out his own advisory telling the local ag community there have been no reports of trespassing related to the UC Davis study and that Bennett said participants have been warned to stay off private fields and orchards.

But noting that volunteers were about to begin their work in Arvin and Lamont, he said growers should continue to be aware of any bystanders or traffic around ag areas, especially during times when chemicals are being applied, because "drift or exposure is never a good thing anywhere for anyone."

'TANGENTIALLY RELATED'

He added in a phone interview this week that he sees the uproar over the study as "tangentially related" to the notifications controversy because some of the same groups are involved. He raised questions about the study's integrity and said flyers used to recruit its volunteers seemed suspicious.

"The way that the call for participants went out, I think, if I was a grower, it would worry me a little bit, too," he said.

Since word of the study has spread, Nayamin Martinez, CCEJN's executive director, said she has received threats from growers and been slandered by ag publications that have reported on growers' concerns. She said she never asked volunteers to trespass, and added that her organization is engaging with UC Davis on the study because the effort may end up helping communities that have long been ignored.

Martinez said she doesn't think it's inappropriate for activist groups to handle recruiting for the study, adding "Why are (growers) so afraid?"

She has received support from Californians with Pesticide Reform, whose co-directors wrote a letter to state officials June 25 complaining Tucker's and Fankhauser's actions constituted discrimination against Hispanics "ranging from callous disregard to actively fueling racist attacks." The letter called Tucker's call to look out for trespassing volunteers "reprehensible" and a  "dog whistle."

GROWERS' WORRY

Tucker did not make himself available for an interview but a representative of his office, Tulare County Assistant Ag Commissioner Christopher Greer, said concerns about the study originated with recruitment flyers featuring a photo of a crop duster in flight and a reference to wearing an air monitor during the pesticide spray season from May to August.

The big worry, he said, was that study participants might be misguided and put themselves in harm's way by entering a private property about to be treated with chemicals.

Julie Henderson, a deputy secretary of CalEPA and acting director of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, said the UC Davis study is a credible study being conducted by a reputable researcher, and that state officials expect to see useful information come out of it.

"I think part of what we all are seeking is the protection of the health and safety of everyone in the community," Henderson said. "So, I don't think having a study that is designed to monitor that is taking a position one way or the other."

The executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, Romeo Agbalog, said by email Tuesday farmers' concerns about potential trespassing are understandable in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming ag producers' property rights. He said he appreciated Fankhauser's recent advisory and questioned where the UC Davis study is leading.

"Farmers … work to produce the world's food supply under one of the most highly regulated environments in the country, and as such it's reasonable for us (to) wonder the intent of the study and if more regulations will result thereof," Agbalog wrote.

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