By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
When it comes to the fight to limit pesticide use, perhaps the most effective tool activists have at their disposal is lawsuits. It appears they’re gearing up to file another one.
In a 50-page legal request, Central Coast activists are asking the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner to review all permits for pesticide applications issued this year within a mile of Ohlone Elementary, Pajaro Middle School and Hall District Elementary School in North Monterey County.
“If we need to file a lawsuit to get the ag commissioner to follow the law, we definitely will,” said Mark Weller, statewide strategist for Californians for Pesticide Reform, in an email. His organization is one of several seeking the legal request.
Activists say the permits were issued improperly because no review was done to evaluate the environmental and health effects of applying those pesticides. The request also asks the ag commissioner to stop all pesticide applications authorized under those permits until they are reviewed.
As of Oct. 4, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has issued 17 permits to spray pesticides within a mile of the three schools. The children who attend these schools are mostly Latino.
“That the County Ag Commissioner allows for the use of highly hazardous pesticides around these schools without following his legal obligation to analyze for safer alternatives and cumulative impacts is an outrageous case of environmental racism,” said Dr. Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families in Watsonville.
According to the California Code of Regulations ag commissioners must “determine if a substantial adverse environmental impact may result from the use of such pesticide” when evaluating the proposed use of restricted materials. If they do, they must consider whether feasible alternative pesticides or mitigation measures would substantially reduce the adverse impacts. Often, ag commissioners cite the use of tarps to cover the ground before applying fumigants as a mitigation measure that prevents or limits pesticide drift. That’s a method that’s used with strawberries, one of the major products produced near these schools.
'This is a serious community health issue that must be addressed immediately'
But studies show that those measures are not completely eliminating the amount of pesticides released into the air near children. Studies have shown that pesticide drift can travel up to 2.5 miles from its original application, and the air monitor near Ohlone Elementary School has shown elevated concentrations of 1,3-Dichloropropane, a fumigant that has been linked to cancer in humans. That pesticide, also known as 1,3-D or by its commercial name Telone, is one of several dozen pesticides that are used in Monterey County.
“How can the Ag Commissioner tell us we’re safe from fumigants, when they don’t account for extra dangers posed by combined applications?” said Francisco Rodriguez, secretary-treasurer of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “Fumigants are applied together or close to each other hundreds of times a year in Monterey County, so this is a serious community health issue that must be addressed immediately.”
Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzalez announced in July he’s retiring at the end of the year. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“We were expecting the commissioner to respond on October 24th,” Weller said. “We have sent a follow-up inquiry to the commissioner, and we are waiting on an explanation for the delay. This is certainly deeply concerning that the ag commissioner has not acted more promptly on such a serious public health issue, one directly affecting children.”
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