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Shafter group raises pressure on county ag official

Glenn Fankhauser

Glenn Fankhauser is Kern County's agricultural commissioner.

Members of a committee set up to tackle air quality issues in Shafter are increasing pressure on Kern County's agricultural commissioner after he refused last month to turn over farmers' plans for applying certain dangerous pesticides.

The committee sent senior state officials a letter last week accusing Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser of working in bad faith and prioritizing ag profits over public health. Then, on Wednesday, an activist group close to the matter pressed the same two officials to have him fired.

"Mr. Fankhauser is terrified that once people know what chemical violence is being perpetrated in their midst, they might take steps to stop it," reads a letter dated Feb. 12 to Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Val Dolcini and Secretary Jared Blumenfeld of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

It was unclear Thursday whether the letters will break an impasse that hardened last month when Fankhauser rejected the DPR director's request — Dolcini has insisted it wasn't an order — to help establish a new public notification system in which the state would post growers' notices of intent to apply any of three fumigants within 7 miles of Shafter.

The three chemicals — 1,3-dichloropropene, chloropicrin and methyl isothiocyanate — are believed to cause cancer.

Kern already has a system for sharing chemical-application notifications among growers as a way of protecting farmworkers from accidentally getting sprayed, which has happened locally and carries substantial health risks.

Committee members say these notices should be made public so residents can take protective steps like closing their windows and rescheduling outdoor events.

Dolcini said by phone Thursday he will continue to push for a compromise, adding that efforts are underway to eventually establish a statewide system accomplishing the same goal.

But even as he maintained he has authority to compel Fankhauser to hand over the notices, he said he prefers at this time to "keep my powder dry."

"I really believe at the end of the day that this is something that the local community has to come together" on and work out, he said.

CalEPA emailed a brief statement Thursday saying it supports the DPR's efforts to reengage with the committee, the ag commissioner and regional air regulators to develop a notification system that "ensures the community is adequately notified before these pesticides are applied."

Another agency involved in the discussion, the California Air Resources Board, said by email it is monitoring the situation and speaking with DPR to find the most effective way "to bring about the required notifications as soon as possible."

CARB added it lacks the authority to force Fankhauser to act but that it is optimistic a pilot project will emerge in Shafter "to determine the feasibility and effectiveness of notification in other similar communities statewide."

Fankhauser has offered to help build a localized public notification system in which farmers would use doorhangers to notify people living within 200 feet of a field where any of the three dangerous fumigants are proposed to be applied. The chemicals' labels require only a 100-foot notification radius.

But Fankhauser contends that wider access to such information could be misused by activists and jeopardize farmers' ability to use highly regulated chemical treatments.

He also says public notification serves little purpose, partly because notices of intent don't state exactly when sprayings will happen, and that it would be easy for farmers to legally undermine the system if they feel it's not in their best interest.

Fankhauser is appointed by the county Board of Supervisors and he has said he believes he has the board's tacit approval of his opposition to the public notifications proposed by the committee.

His position is generally supported by the local farming industry and an association of the state's county agricultural commissioners that has defended Fankhauser's resistance on what it says should be a statewide rule, not one applied to a single county.

A statewide system would take a long time to develop and won't be easy to create because of circumstances unique to each county, said Josh Huntsinger, president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association. But he said that's more appropriate than singling out an individual county with separate rules.

The Shafter steering committee is one of 10 across the state established by Assembly Bill 617 in 2017 to work on clean-air objectives.

The Feb. 12 letter committee members sent to Dolcini and Blumenfeld said Fankhauser has been reluctant to engage with the group, rudely dismissing its concerns and working with farm groups to intimidate the group.

Fankhauser denied being rude or dismissive. He said by email he has been open to changing the county's existing notification system but that not everything is on the table.

"I was willing to make some adjustments to my proposals, but there were things which I was not going to offer, which should make sense," he wrote.

Wednesday's letter calling on state officials to fire Fankhauser was sent by an attorney and an assistant director at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. It said the DPR should "no longer tolerate (Fankhauser's) intransigence and insubordination" and immediately begin a hearing that could lead to his dismissal.