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Daily News Blog

05
Jan

Federal Court Blocks EPA from Weakening Farmworker Protections

(Beyond Pesticides, January 5, 2021) In the waning days of 2020, a federal court provided a hint of hope that farmworkers will retain basic buffer zone protections from toxic pesticides. The District Court for the Southern District of New York  issued in late December a temporary restraining order against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prohibiting the agency from implementing industry-friendly rules that weaken application exclusion zones (AEZs) for farmworkers. The ruling, a result of a lawsuit brought by groups Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, is likely to put the onus on the next administration to determine the fate of the rule.

Application Exclusion Zones (AEZs) are buffer zones where individuals are not permitted to enter during a pesticide application, as doing so would put one at risk of dangerous exposure. EPA’s proposal,  pushed forward by Administrator Andrew Wheeler and finalized in October 2020, included a number of changes to the way AEZs would be managed. Chemical intensive farms would no longer be required to keep bystanders out of off-site spray areas, and pesticide applications could be restarted when an individual leaves an AEZ. Current rules require farms to keep individuals out of areas where pesticides are applied, both on and off-site, and require set safety requirements about when spraying can start and stop.

The Trump Administration’s proposal would also change the way family members living on a farm are treated. While current rules incorporate protections for these family members, the changes would exempt immediate family members “from all aspects of the AEZ requirement,” according to EPA. As explained to the public, family members could remain inside while a pesticide spraying is occurring, “rather than compelling them to leave even when they feel safe remaining inside.” Health advocates indicate that such a proposal amounts to a dereliction of the agency’s duty to inform farmers and the general public about the inherent hazards of pesticide use, as feeling safe and being safe are critically important distinctions when it comes to chemical exposure.  

In an effort to stop implementation of the finalized rule, farmworker advocacy groups filed suit in mid-December. “The AEZ was enacted by EPA to protect farmworkers and frontline communities from being poisoned by the drift of sprayed pesticides at the time of application,” the complaint reads. “The final rule’s erosion of this protection poses an unreasonable risk of harm to human health, in violation of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.”

Shortly after the filing by advocacy groups, a coalition of five states, led by New York Attorney General  (AG) Letitia James, filed a separate suit against Administrator Wheeler’s EPA. New York is joined by California, Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota. “The Trump Administration’s decision to undercut existing public health protections for these workers is not only reprehensible — it’s illegal. We’re going to court to prove it,” California AG Xavier Becerra said in a press release.

Maryland AG Frosh had similarly stark words for EPA. “It is EPA’s job to protect farmworkers, their families and others who are exposed to pesticides,” Mr. Frosh said in a press release. “These regulations prioritize killing bugs over protecting people.”

A wave of revisions to the Worker Protection Standards governing federal farmworker safety were made during the Obama Administration, with the pesticide industry and affiliated corporate farm groups in general agreement at the time. However, many advocates believe the industry-friendly slant of the Trump Administration emboldened the agrichemical industry to push back on these long-negotiated changes. Some of these rollbacks were rebuffed by a deal cut between the Senate and EPA in 2019, but AEZs remained a focal point for both industry and farmworker health advocates.

The restraining order is likely to put the decision on whether to defend the industry-friendly AEZ rule to the Biden administration. While maintaining the changes agreed to under the Obama Administration would be an important start, it is evident that further safeguards are needed. A recent incident where over two dozen Texan farmworkers working in Illinois were repeatedly sprayed with toxic pesticides via aircraft, despite current rules, underscores the importance of strong enforcement to drive compliance.

Along with increased farmworker protections, Beyond Pesticides has identified a range of priorities for President-elect Biden. Help advance a new vision for the EPA by sending a letter to the President-elect today.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source:  Progressive Farmer DTN, Courthouse News Service, Farmworker Justice press release

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