Agriculture

Central Valley GOP leaders target pesticide rules

SACRAMENTO - Bugs have invaded state budget talks as debate heats up about clean-air rules farmers must follow when spraying for pests.

Environmentalists say GOP leaders Mike Villines of Clovis and Dave Cogdill of Modesto are seeking to weaken regulations that are critical to cleaning the polluted air in their Valley districts.

The demands are part of a long-running push by Republicans to get concessions on a host of environmental regulations in return for supporting a state budget deal that could include tax or fee hikes.

Cogdill said environmentalists are trying to "stop all business and industry." The GOP pesticide proposal would simply put into law a recent court decision, he said, "so we don't have to keep fighting the battle over and over again."

The minority GOP enjoys rare leverage at budget time. State spending plans require a two-thirds majority vote, meaning a handful of Republicans must sign on.

Clean-air activists say the pesticide regulations should not be part of budget talks, which are taking place behind closed doors with no public involvement.

"What [Villines and Cogdill] have put on the chopping block will have serious health implications for residents of the San Joaquin Valley," said Sarah Sharpe, environmental health director for Fresno Metro Ministry, a faith-based group that advocates for clean air. "There's no place for these conversations in the budget."

Lawmakers and Gov. Schwarzenegger are struggling to close a $42 billion budget shortfall through June 2010.

The pesticide rule in question concerns smog-making gases, called volatile organic compounds or VOCs, emitted by pesticides. Pesticides contribute to about 6% of the smog problem in the Valley, the most recent state figures show.

The Valley's bad air has created numerous public health problems, including high asthma rates.

In 2006, a federal judge ruled that the state Department of Pesticide Regulation ignored clean air laws for pesticides. The judge ordered regulations that would cut pesticide emissions in the Valley by 20% from 1991 levels.

But in August, the department won an appeal to overturn the ruling. Officials are now finalizing new regulations that call for a smaller decrease - a 12% cut from 1990 levels.

Republicans are seeking to put that figure in statute, according to language of a proposal circulating in the Capitol. And the proposal would loosen rules in Ventura County to allow for more emissions than what the pesticide department is calling for.

The proposal appears aimed at undermining efforts by environmental groups to re-establish the stricter limits - either through regulations or in court.

"We're going to do everything in our power to stop [the Department of Pesticide Regulation's] misguided regulations and Republicans' attempt to further steal public health protections from rural residents," said Brent Newell, legal director for the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

The rules target "fumigants," pesticides that are injected into the soil to kill pests and disease. The department says the looser limit will still "meet our obligation to reduce pesticide emissions, but do so in a way that avoids placing an unreasonable or disproportionate burden on fumigant pesticide users," according to regulatory documents.

Farmers fear the stricter limit could force some growers to stop using pesticides in years when the region approaches the emissions limit. As a result, "we are not going to be able to farm the same amount of acres. We are not going to be able to produce the same amount of food," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League.

The department's proposal would set allowable emissions at 18.1 tons per day, 2.1 tons less stringent than what environmentalists want. In recent years, pesticide VOC emissions have ranged from 17.3 tons per day to 21.4 tons, according to the pesticide department.

Estimated annual average emissions from all sources was 380 tons per day in 2006, according to the state Air Resources Board.The reporter can be reached at eschultz@fresnobee.com or (916) 326-5541.

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