On Tuesday, California lawmakers took steps to add stricter penalties for pesticide drift violations in the state. With a 5-0 vote, members of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee moved AB 1419 forward, signaling support for the health and safety of California farmworkers and farming communities.
Protections for farmworkers
The bill, which was authored by Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), gives the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) authority to issue larger fines to companies that violate rules around pesticide spray and drift, endangering the health of farmworkers and surrounding communities.
Quirk introduced the bill in response to four separate drift incidents this year in the state that had farmworkers fainting and vomiting, some receiving medical attention. One August incident in Kern County had up to 92 workers exhibiting symptoms of pesticide exposure.
The offending chemical in several of these poisonings was the neurodevelopmental toxicant chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate pesticide that was slated to be banned last March because of its human health harms, particularly to children. However, Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to reverse the proposed ban, and farmworkers have continued to suffer for it.
More than a slap on the wrist
In the months since EPA’s refusal to ban chlorpyrifos, a number of companies in California have been saddled with fines for failing to inform farmworkers that they would be injecting fumigants or spraying pesticides nearby. However, as PAN organizing director Paul Towers notes,
“The fines levied against these companies amount to little more than pocket change for large-scale growers. Higher fines and larger no-spray zones around workers would be a much more effective deterrent to pesticide drift problems.”
DPR is the bill’s sponsor, and the agency will now have authority to issue $25,000 fines for more serious violations, supplementing the authority of local county agricultural commissioners. Higher fines will hopefully incentivize growers and pesticide applicators to more closely follow rules requiring prior notification when spraying, and to observe ¼-mile buffer zones around residential areas.
On-the-job safety at risk
This victory comes at an opportune time, as in the midst of delays in implementing the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), farmworkers can use all the on-the-job protections they can get.
Last year, PAN and our partners celebrated long-overdue improvements to WPS, only to have EPA announce intentions to weaken and delay implementation of several important pesticide-protective policies.
The agency is expected to roll back some of the new requirements, including that pesticide applicators must be at least 18 years old, provisions protecting bystanders from exposure during applications, and rules allowing farmworkers to have someone else request information about the pesticides being applied on their behalf.
AB 1419 is expected to move forward to a vote in the Assembly in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, PAN will continue working with our farmworker advocate partners for a safe, healthy work environment where those who are the backbone of our food system have dignity and power.