The struggle over pesticide regulation has simmered for years, and it has recently begun to boil over. Pesticide-related accidents can compromise the health and safety of agricultural workers, but one Idaho group has lobbied the State of Idaho to loosen the rules surrounding them and increase reliance on federal enforcement—much to the chagrin of advocacy groups.
“We are not going to drop this issue and we are going to keep advocating and working to protect our people,” said Marielena Vega of the Visión 2C Resource Council. “This is not only an issue that can affect workers, but has the potential to affect everyone, from the environment to small communities, families and children.”
The Idaho Agricultural Aviation Association has taken a two-pronged approach to changing state rules regarding pesticide application. When a bill to do just that was reluctantly vetoed by Gov. Brad Little, it had the regulatory rule-making process to fall back on. The original draft rule suggested removing or relaxing several regulations, which resulted in Idaho State Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Brian Oakey receiving over 90 comments from people and groups expressing concern. On July 23, the draft rule was revised, adding some parameters that were being called for by many of the public comments.
The IAAA championed the loosening of state pesticide and chemigation regulation in favor of federal enforcement, chiefly focusing on three aspects of aviation policy. In a July 20 letter to the ISDA, the IAAA expressed support for the striking of sections related to limited application of pesticides when wind speeds are greater than 10 miles per hour; spraying near hazard zones like schools, homes and hospitals; and restrictions the altitude at which planes can fly when near communities. Those changes, the group said, would bring Idaho in line with federal requirements.
“Instead of having a rule that is responsive to science and technology, we just have a static rule that has been in place for over 20 years,” David Lehman, principal at Primus Policy Group and the lobbyist for the IAAA, said. “Enforcement actions are more successful now because you don’t have to put as much work into it. I understand that people are concerned with accidents, but you can very precisely determine if there was a violation.”
Modern technology has not managed to bring comfort to people and groups impacted by pesticide use, and some of the parties that have expressed concern include the ACLU, the Food Producers of Idaho and Intermountain Fair Housing Council. Members of the public also wrote to the ISDA voicing objections to the draft rule.
Many of the public comments included concern about striking wind speed restrictions, spraying near hazard zones, and the prospect of guidelines for pesticide applicator licenses and applicator apprenticeships becoming less stringent. The ISDA reacted by rewording parts of the draft and restoring wind speed restrictions, but the rule-making process isn’t over.
The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides and other groups brought attention that the proposed weakening of application license tests and the removal of wind speed restrictions could lead to unintentional spraying of pesticides. This often results in “pesticide drift,” which is when pesticide is applied to areas that were not intended to be sprayed at all.
NCAP has advocated for the inclusion of a definition for “spray drift,” which up until July 23, was an ambiguous term in the rule. Christina Stucker-Gassi, NCAP’s Healthy Food and Farms Program Coordinator and chair of the board for Idaho Organization of Resource Councils IORC, is pleased to see the definition now included in the draft rule.
“I am really excited because they were able to take the feedback that they received and incorporate it into the draft,” Stucker-Gassi said. “This includes farm worker advocates, waterway advocates and advocates for public health. Moving forward, I hope to see collaboration with these groups continue in the long term.”
As a farmworker advocate, Vega made it clear that accessibility of incident reporting is another major point of contention that has not been addressed in the draft rule. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 51% of agriculture workers identify as Hispanic, making language-related barriers a distinct possibility. The Visión 2C Resource Council has worked toward increased accessibility and acknowledgement of potential language barriers.
“Right now there are no reporting mechanisms in place for pesticide incidents, which is something that we would like to change as well,” Vega said. “We have no idea how many accidents have happened. It’s also important to note that many farm workers have limited English or none at all, and we are also advocating for accessibility.”
While some changes have been made to appease stakeholders, some contentious pieces of the draft rule remain. The draft rule maintains that eliminating low-flying restrictions in the rule is the best course of action, and that the Federal Aviation Administration should have total regulatory authority on this matter.
Advocacy groups have long warned that deferral to federal agencies will leave the door open for accidents to slip through the cracks. Idaho Conservation League External Relations Director Jonathan Oppenheimer said he wants more transparency on how federal and state agencies will work together with public and environmental health in mind.
“Ultimately, we feel like if the Idaho Department of Agriculture and other decision makers in this process want to ignore the important environmental and farm worker protections that were previously in the rule, then it’s incumbent upon us to be able to demonstrate the strong support with that and ask the state department to justify their decisions,” Oppenheimer said.
The justification that was sent to stakeholders regarding this choice is that federal flight regulations are similar to the state’s existing rules. The elimination of the low-flying rule is meant to reduce redundancy, but some stakeholders are not pleased.
In a letter submitted by IORC on July 21, it reasoned that the decision will “limit enforcement and oversight of aerial applicators regulations and instead defer this responsibility to understaffed Federal Agencies,” also mentioning that notification to the public would only occur if the crop duster flies over “congested areas.”
The first public meeting regarding the pesticide and chemigation use and application occurred on June 30, and the next chance second negotiated rule-making will occur remotely on Monday, Aug. 3. This gives stakeholders another chance to publicly speak about the draft rule as it now stands.
“Before, we were thought of as just a bunch of environmental crazies, this shows that when we make good suggestions they will be considered and it is very empowering,” Stucker-Gassi said. “I hope the ISDA continues to create avenues for stakeholder feedback because we have a lot of work to do.”