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Environmental Protection Agency issues new rules on fumigant pesticides

July 10, 2008 |  7:59 pm


The Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules today governing fumigant pesticides, which are used to sterilize soil before the planting of strawberries, tomatoes and other crops throughout the country.

Many of these new rules are not groundbreaking to Californians -- the state already has some of the country's strictest regulations governing fumigant use under the Department of Pesticide Regulation. But nationwide the proposals are significant and include creating buffer zones, monitoring air quality around fields, creating fumigant management plans and training emergency responders and applicators.

"This stuff is pretty much what we've been doing in California for years," said Rob Roy, president and general counsel for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., which represents more than 150 major farming organizations.

"If anything, what it's going to do is level the playing field. California farmers are not going to be the only ones stuck with these rules. All farmers that utilize fumigants will be affected by this rule making ... that just adds to the cost per acre for production."

The new rules cover chloropicrin, dazomet, metam sodium/potassium, methyl isothiocyanate and methyl bromide and are the result of a nearly four-year reassessment of soil fumigants. (Apparently the EPA is at the tail end of its 15-year process of reviewing all pesticides registered before 1984. Officials said last year that they started the new 15-year cycle to review all pesticides registered as now in use.)

Almost everyone -- farmers, manufacturers, environmentalists and government officials -- seemed at least OK with the changes. In fact, most seemed pleased. Activists were happily surprised that the EPA placed much of the burden for these changes on the manufacturers of the fumigants.

"This is putting responsibility where it belongs," said Susan Kegley, a senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America.

Western Plant Health Assn., a trade organization representing manufacturers in California, Arizona and Hawaii, said its members had worked with the EPA and others on developing the guidelines.

"We believe these guidelines are reflective of standards already in place in California," said the group's chief executive and president, Renee Pinel, in a statement. "WPHA supports product use standards that provide for the safe use of crop protection tools, while allowing growers the flexibility to use these tools in an agronomically sound manner."

Nonetheless, representatives of the Pesticide Action Network said they had hoped that the new measures would include larger buffer zones. Under the proposal, buffer zones will range from 25 feet to half a mile, depending on the size of the field being fumigated and other factors. Around schools, nursing homes and other sensitive sites, this zone must be at least a quarter of a mile.

"We don't like buffer zones at 25 feet -- that's just nothing, that's just across the street from your house," Kegley said. But EPA officials said their risk assessments studies showed that 25 feet would be more than enough of a buffer in certain situations.

In California buffer zones are already used for methyl bromide-injected fields. Methyl bromide has been banned by an international treaty because it damages the ozone layer and is being phased out. It is allowed only for uses considered crucial.

Fumigants are viewed as a "silver bullet" approach to killing pests, far more effective than most other pesticides and easier than methods such as crop rotation. They allow year-round strawberry farming in Ventura County, for example. Fumigants are applied by large tractors that drag their spikes deep into the soil, injecting the gases. A tarp is then placed atop the soil for several days, after which it is removed and eventually planting can begin.

Fumigants are among the most potentially dangerous pesticides in use. Toxic gas can evaporate out of the fields, exposing farm workers and wafting into neighborhoods. Fumigants, some of which are carcinogens, have been linked to acute respiratory and other health problems.

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation uses EPA regulations as a "floor" for many of its rules, said Glenn Brank, a spokesman for the agency. The agency has been reviewing current regulations and will probably have modifications out in the next couple of years, he said.

"Whatever we do will at least be equivalent to the EPA, if not provide a greater margin of safety for workers and the public," Brank said. "But there's no question that whatever they do is going to be the law of the land."

It's not clear to what extent the new rules will affect California's existing regulations, which differ on a more nuanced level. For example, the state has a system in place that deals with training emergency responders; however, under the new proposal, registrants, or manufacturers, would be responsible for this.

"Our decision requests a registrant be aware of what the state is already doing ... to coordinate with us and the state so we complement each other and do not create a redundancy," said Steve Bradbury, director of the special review and reregistration division of the EPA. "For some states, this will be new."

Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said she would be taking a closer look at the proposed rules, which she had not had a chance to review.

"The devil's in the details," Cory said. "... We want to make sure we can continue to use fumigants safely and we're not trying to re-create something we're already doing here."

The rules will be published in the Federal Registry on July 16, which will kick off a 60-day comment period. Under the EPA's timeline, the new rules will begin to take effect in 2009, notably those involving training and community outreach. Fumigant-specific rules will probably take effect in 2010 when they are expected to be printed on product labels.

To see the abbreviated print version (for space constraints), click here.

-- Tami Abdollah

Photo: Workers pick strawberries near Camarillo. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times