(Beyond Pesticides, May 21, 2007) On Friday, May 18, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) proposed rules to sharply reduce fumigant air emissions that contribute to smog. Acting under a federal court order, DPR will begin allocating fumigant use in areas with poor air quality. The proposed rules make California the first state to dictate how and where several widely used fumigants can be applied on fields statewide, said Glenn Brank, spokesman for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.
The directive, which the agency has the authority to set, centers on fumigants – gases fruit and vegetable growers use to kill pests in the soil before planting. The chemicals have long been blamed for being part of the state’s air pollution problem because they cause smog-forming gases when they evaporate from fields.
The rules also would eliminate some fumigation methods that permit high emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. While farm chemicals comprise only about 2 percent of California’s overall VOC emissions, pesticides are among the top ten VOC sources in the San Joaquin Valley and Ventura air attainment areas. The Southeast Desert area also fails to meet pesticide VOC goals.
The Department predicts its plan will reduce emissions by more than 4.5 tons per day statewide. Proposed rules would reduce fumigant emissions from about 38 to more than 50 percent within the three areas. The new rules would require farmers using fumigants to hire special commercial applicators and to incorporate low-emission techniques such as injecting the gases deeper into moist soil and covering fields with heavier tarps.
“DPR is committed to improving California’s air quality,” said Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam. “We believe that pesticide emissions should be reduced in a way that protects people and their environment, while preserving the agricultural economy that is critical to so many livelihoods.
“Our strategy requires careful balance and close cooperation with environmental and economic stakeholders,” said Ms. Warmerdam, “but we are determined to succeed, because there is no acceptable alternative to providing clean air for all Californians.”
DPR’s regulatory action complies with a 2006 federal court order. The order requires DPR to enforce a 20 percent reduction in pesticide VOCs, compared to 1991 levels. Rules must take effect by January 1, 2008. The court order stemmed from a lawsuit that claimed the state failed to meet its obligations under the federal Clean Air Act. To achieve timely compliance with the court order, DPR targeted fumigants because of their high VOC emissions. From May to October, fumigants account for 35 percent of VOCs in the San Joaquin Valley area, and 76 percent or more in the Southeast Desert and Ventura areas. (Sacramento Metropolitan and South Coast areas are in compliance with pesticide VOC limits.)
DPR would set an overall fumigant use allocation (or “cap”) for each non-attainment area from May to October, based on the court-ordered goal. To remain within allotment and emission limits, fumigant registrants would track and report applications. They also would calculate emissions from each application method used, at DPR’s direction.
Statewide, farm fumigants account for about 20 percent of all pounds applied, and the proposed rules apply to all seven of them: methyl bromide, metam-sodium, 1-3 Dichloropropene, chloropicrin, dazomet, metam-potassium, and sodium tetrathiocarbonate.
As part of the rulemaking process, an economic analysis estimated it could cost growers $10 million to $40 million a year for low-emission application methods. DPR expects San Joaquin and the Southeast Desert to hit their VOC target levels using low-emission methods.
Last year, DPR launched an initiative to develop a comprehensive, long-term strategy to reduce pesticide air emissions without disrupting the agricultural economy. That strategy included a data call-in that required registrants to submit plans on how to reduce VOCs for about 600 products. Almost all have responded, and data evaluation is underway.
On another front, DPR’s proposed budget for 2007-08 includes $780,000 to revive Pest Alliance grant partnerships with the private sector, to seek alternatives to fumigants and other reduced-risk strategies.
According to the Associated Press, the proposed rules were met with criticism from both growers, who said implementing them would cost them millions, and environmentalists, who said the rules were too lax. In 1997, the state pesticide agency promised to adopt a plan for reducing fumigant emissions by 20 percent. The target went unmet, however, and several environmental groups sued in 2004, claiming the state violated national health standards for smog. Ruling in that case last year, a U.S. District Court judge in Sacramento made the voluntary reduction goal mandatory.
Environmental groups, including those that sued the state to force the regulation, said their biggest concern is enforcement. They want individual growers, not just pesticide manufacturers, to face potential penalties for exceeding emissions limits.
Formal hearings for the VOC regulations have been scheduled July 10 in Ontario and July 12 in Parlier, Fresno County. (See the proposed regulations)