From VCStar.com, Richard Chang, Special to The Star, 24 Aug 2011.
Shouting “Sí se puede,” or “yes, we can,” on the steps of the Capitol, a group of environmental and farmworker activists this week again called on Gov. Jerry Brown to stop the use of what they believe is a cancer-causing chemical on fields used to grow strawberries and other high-value crops.
“What is the human toll that would be acceptable?” asked Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Monterey, one of the speakers at the rally Tuesday.
Methyl iodide, a fumigant designed to sanitize the soil before crops are planted, was first approved for use nationally by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. In California and a handful of other states, separate state approval also is required.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation approved the use of methyl iodide at the end of 2010, shortly before former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office.
Brown said this spring that he intended to take “a fresh look” at the decision, but no action has been taken. The department has been without a permanent director since the previous director resigned in March.
Under current regulations, those seeking to use methyl iodide must obtain a permit from the county agricultural commissioner. If the permit is denied, the applicant may appeal to the Department of Pesticide Regulation.
So far, there have been four known instances in which methyl iodide has been applied on fields in California. All of the applications took place this summer on pepper fields in the Central Valley.
In April, a local farmer applied with the Ventura County agricultural commissioner’s office to be the first in the state to use methyl iodide. The permit was revoked after Commissioner Henry Gonzales determined the site was too close to a playground.
State regulators placed conditions on its use beyond what the federal EPA requires. Among them are requirements for large buffer zones separating fields where the chemical is used and sensitive sites such as schools and nursing homes.
Critics argue that methyl iodide has the potential to spread through the air, endangering the health of farm workers and nearby residents, and also might affect groundwater supplies. The Department of Pesticide Regulation has been sued for its decision to approve methyl iodide by a consortium of environmental and farm groups, including the Pesticide Action Network and the United Farm Workers union.
“Homes and schools are literally 25 feet away from these fields. This puts rural communities at risk,” said Paul Towers, spokesman for the Pesticide Action Network.
Lea Brooks, communications director for the Department of Pesticide Regulation, disagreed.
“California has the nation’s most stringent regulations. If new information comes to light, we have the authority to impose restrictions, suspend use or cancel the registration of these products.”
In a fact sheet released in June, the department noted, “Methyl iodide does not present a food safety concern. Methyl iodide residues could not be detected in harvested fruit.”
The California Strawberry Commission also supports the continued use of methyl iodide. A statement released by the commission Tuesday said, “It is important to remember that methyl iodide and other soil fumigants are never applied to plants or fruits.”
In an interview, Monning said he does not plan to introduce legislation to overturn the department’s decision. “The focus right now is on urging the governor to review the process,” he said.