(Beyond Pesticides, December 4, 2013) The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion in federal court asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to uphold environmental justice protections under civil rights law. EPA previously found that Latino schools in California disproportionately suffer from exposure to pesticides due to spraying near their schools, but has yet to adequately remedy these risks, prompting parents to file a civil rights complaint.
The schools are near crop fields where toxic fumigants are routinely sprayed and drift off agricultural fields to the nearby community. More than a decade after Latino parents first filed a civil rights complaint with EPA detailing the dangerous levels of pesticides at Latino public schools throughout California, parents on Aug. 23, 2013 filed a lawsuit against EPA to force the agency to protect the civil rights of hundreds of Latino children. The parent say that ongoing pesticide monitoring set up by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) has not protected children from excessive exposure to pesticides. The case argues that the Latino community did not receive due process and that EPA’s agreement with CDPR does not prevent schools from pesticide contamination.
On November 20, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (which serves as the EPA’s legal counsel) filed a motion to dismiss the case without a trial. Documents filed with the court argue the case should be dismissed in part due to lack of jurisdiction, stating that there is no law requiring EPA to consult with the original complainants, and that EPA acted within its authority. EPA’s counsel further argues that the plaintiffs have another avenue to fight improper permits: “Plaintiffs have another adequate remedy in court, namely, state court suits challenging the issuance of permits to use pesticides near the school (or schools) relevant to plaintiffs.”
However, fighting permits one by one would do nothing to stop the pattern of discrimination, said Madeline Stano, a staff attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and Environment, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents. “The state court option EPA attorneys point to would mean our clients challenging every single permitting action (likely hundreds) that results in discrimination near all Latino public schools in California,” said Ms. Stano. “Which doesn’t even get to the bad behavior that EPA found CDPR to have violated under Title VI in their preliminary finding of discrimination.”
EPA also argues that the new plaintiffs do not actually have standing to sue, because their children are ages one, three, five and six””and therefore not currently enrolled in the schools with higher-than-average pesticide applications nearby.
The current monitoring program is the result of a settlement agreement EPA reached with CDPR in 2011, which EPA celebrated as a crowning civil rights achievement. This settlement aimed to resolve a 1999 civil rights complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits intentional discrimination and discriminatory effects on the basis of race, color, and national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance. It alleged that CDPR’s renewal of the toxic fumigant methyl bromide in 1999 discriminated against Latino school children whose schools are located near agriculture fields. Concerns were raised that there was an unintentional adverse and disproportionate impact on Latino children resulting from the use of methyl bromide during that period. While methyl bromide has been phased-out in the U.S., research shows that it is continued to be used in alarming amounts across California due to a sizeable loophole in regulations.
As a follow up to the 1999 complaint, the suit filed this summer cites EPA’s failure and continued failure to protect the children’s rights to freedom from racial discrimination, noting that CDPR’s measures fell short of actually providing relief to the children and their parents who were affected by the use of methyl bromide. Legal representatives argue that the exclusion of the Hispanic community by EPA is unconstitutional under the Civil Rights Act, and are continuing to work have the case heard. A judge will rule on the motion to dismiss after December 11.
Currently, California runs tests for air particles from methyl bromide and 32 other pesticides and breakdown products, and measures the results against screening levels established by CDPR. However, critics maintain that the state’s sampling is not representative of peak agricultural exposures and question whether any level of a toxicant in air is reasonable under the law, given the viability of alternative agricultural practices that do not rely on these chemicals. Pesticides can drift and volatilize, and move over long distances fairly rapidly through wind and rain. Documented exposure patterns resulting from drift cause particular concerns for children and other sensitive population groups. Adverse health effects, such as nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, headaches, rashes, and mental disorientation, may appear even when a pesticide is applied in compliance with label directions.
Communities living near agricultural areas have disproportionate exposure risks to pesticides due to pesticide drift. Farmworker communities and their children, as a result of pesticide exposures, are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease. For more on pesticides induced diseases visit, Pesticide-Induced Disease Database. Our food choices have a direct effect on those who grow and harvest what we eat around the world. This is why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices, protection of farmworkers and farm families.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.