California ordered to adopt methyl bromide regulations

Court ruling: Lax guidelines for pesticide violate state law

provided by Environmental Working Group


n a ruling with major implications for the continued use of one of California's most dangerous and heavily applied pesticides, a superior court judge has ordered the state to adopt regulations to protect the public from exposure to the fumigant methyl bromide.

Judge David A. Garcia ruled Thursday in favor of four environmental groups Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network and Pesticide Watch who filed suit last June against the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). The decision marks a turning point in California environmentalists' long battle against methyl bromide, a highly volatile and acutely toxic biocide gas that routinely drifts from farm fields into adjacent neighborhoods and school grounds.

Garcia found DPR in violation of a 1989 state law requiring adoption of clear and enforceable statewide regulations for methyl bromide use by April of that year. Instead, DPR has only developed an internal set of use "guidelines" conditions such as the amount of the pesticide used per acre and the size of protective buffer zones around application sites which are administered by county agriculture commissioners and subject to change without public notice.

Following Garcia's decision, the next step is for the victorious plaintiffs to draft an order for DPR to comply with the ruling, which include setting a definite date by which the state must adopt regulations. Environmental, labor and community groups will be allowed to participate in the process of setting the regulations.

"Californians have fought for more than 15 years for protection from methyl bromide, but the state has repeatedly put the pesticide and agriculture industries' profits before public health," said Lynda Uvari of Ventura, a member of Pesticide Watch and a victim of methyl bromide poisoning. "Now the court has ordered the state to obey the law and protect the public. With a chemical this dangerous, that must ultimately mean ending methyl bromide use."

Methyl bromide is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Category I toxic compound, a designation reserved for the most dangerous substances. It is known to cause nerve damage and birth defects in laboratory animals and even small doses are harmful to the lungs, kidneys, eyes and skin.

As a potent destroyer of the Earth's protective ozone layer, methyl bromide is scheduled to be banned in the U.S. in 2005. The U.S. deadline, previously set by international treaty for 2001, was extended last year under a bill sponsored by now-retired U.S. Rep. Vic Fazio of California.

Under the state Birth Defects Prevention Act of 1984, it was twice scheduled for earlier bans in California, but each time the agricultural industry successfully lobbied the Legislature to extend the California deadline. In the lawsuit, DPR argued unsuccessfully that the 1996 law extending the deadline superseded the 1989 law requiring adoption of regulations. In 1998, farm-district legislators defeated a bill by state Sen. Liz Figueroa of Fremont, then a member of the Assembly, to ban the use of methyl bromide within 1,000 feet of homes or schools.

"This ruling is a long-awaited victory for Californians who continued to demand protection even though DPR, the Legislature, Congress and the Clinton Administration refused to listen," said Mike Axline, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center of Eugene, Ore., a public-interest law firm that represented the environmental groups.

In California, methyl bromide is injected into the soil before the planting of strawberries, almonds, wine grapes and other crops. California uses more methyl bromide than any other state, with more than 17 million pounds applied in 1995, much of it by Central Coast strawberry growers. It is also widely used in Southern California to fumigate buildings for insects.

In the last two decades, at least 19 people have died in California from exposure to methyl bromide in structural fumigation. More than 1,600 have been poisoned and hundreds evacuated from homes and schools after the toxic gas drifted from fields even when applied according to the state's guidelines. Children are particularly at risk: An Environmental Working Group study found that more than 2.4 million pounds of methyl bromide were applied near California schools in 1995, the latest year for which use figures are available.

  Environmental Working Group, P.O. Box 29201, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129. Tel. (415) 561-6698; fax (415) 561-6696;