EPA to Consider Reducing Farmworker Pesticide Protections

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By Paul Shukovsky

The EPA is considering changes to an Obama-era rule that was meant to minimize pesticide exposure for farmworkers, sources familiar with agency deliberations told Bloomberg Environment.

At issue is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standard for pesticides, a rule issued in 2015 that has engendered opposition from the agricultural community, which says elements of the rule are too expensive.

The EPA is weighing whether to review the current provisions that require pesticide handlers be at least 18 years old, establish application exclusion zones intended to keep people away from pesticide spraying equipment for periods of time, and allow farmworkers to pick a “designated representative” to get pesticide information on a worker’s behalf, according to a government employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job.

EPA spokesman Robert Daguillard confirmed that the rules are under review, but did not specify which provisions.

Pesticide Policy

The possibility of changes to the three provisions was briefly discussed Dec. 12 at a meeting of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Policy, Scott Dahlman, policy director for Oregonians for Food and Shelter, who attended the meeting, told Bloomberg Environment.

Members of Dahlman’s coalition—representing farmers, forest-product companies, pesticide makers, and agriculturalists who use fertilizer, pesticides, and biotechnology—talked with Kevin Keaney, the head of worker safety in the EPA’s pesticides office, who said the worker protection rule was being revisited, Dahlman told Bloomberg Environment.

“They didn’t say what kind of changes they were considering,” Dahlman said. “They told us that they were working on those three issues generally,” referring to worker age, application exclusion zones, and the “designated representative.”

His group’s membership includes a broad representation of agriculture organizations and companies such as J.R. Simplot Co., Weyerhaeuser Co., Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences LLC, and Syngenta Crop Protection Inc.

The EPA’s participants didn’t specify what they had in mind, given that the meeting was more focused on a proposed worker protection standard in Oregon, Dahlman said.

“We generally support it,” Dahlman said of the EPA’s plan to review the rule’s provisions. “When you issue a huge new rule, you get everything out there and you realize that there are some unintended consequences.”

Keaney said Dec. 12 that a meeting happened, but did not provide details of the meeting’s content, and referred Bloomberg Environment to the agency’s media relations office.

Activist Visits

The “designated representative” provision has been among the rule’s most-discussed elements, with the agriculture industry raising concerns that farm labor activists demand of farmers the pesticide-application records required under the rule.

“There are concerns about who might have access to that information and what it might be used for,” Dahlman said.

The rule requires that an establishment display the records for 30 days after pesticide application in a place where workers or handlers are likely to pass, and then maintain those records for two years.

The EPA, in advance of adopting the 2015 rule revision, had proposed prohibiting people younger than 16 from handling pesticides, but ultimately settled on 18 years of age.

“States primarily supported EPA’s proposal to establish a minimum age of 16, noting that establishing a minimum age of 18 would require them to change their state laws,” the agency said in the rule.

‘We’re In a New Environment’

A thorough revision of the Worker Protection Standard would be no easy feat for the agency; the EPA would have to start the rulemaking process from scratch, despite nearly 15 years of work spent on the 2015 rule.

The EPA worked hard to accommodate requests from the agriculture and farmworkers organizations in developing the standard and a related rule to tighten certification requirements for applicators of the most toxic pesticides, Keaney told an advisory panel Nov. 30.

“We thought we made great lengths in changing the regulations as a result of comment,” Keaney told the EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. “I thought we reached a good position in both regulations, so it is kind of discouraging to have it still second-guessed at this stage.”

“We’re in a new environment,” Keaney added, presumably a reference to the agency’s regulatory reform efforts under Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The farmworker rules also are entangled in a congressional fight to pass a bill vital to the Office of Pesticide Programs. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has placed a hold on the Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act (PRIA) (H.R. 1029), a bill to reauthorize the Office of Pesticide Programs’ ability to collect industry fees that fund nearly one-third of the office’s work.

Udall has said he will continue to block the bill from moving in the Senate until the EPA commits to fully implementing the pesticide safety rule.

Oregon Could Adopt Provisions

The federal application exclusion zone provisions raises issues balancing worker safety with the revenue stream of a farming operation, particularly in places where farm laborers’ housing is on or near the fields where they work.

That part of the rule establishes zones where workers should be kept at least 25 to 100 feet away from the spraying area, depending on the method of application.

Oregon orchard owners, for example, are contesting a proposal by the state’s occupational safety and health division to adopt a modified version of the federal exclusion zone rule on the grounds that farm laborer housing would be encompassed by the zones. They contend it could force them to remove fruit trees.

The proposed state rule would allow for occupants within 100 feet to remain indoors during pesticide application, Michael Wood, Oregon’s state OSHA administrator, told Bloomberg Environment. The proposal requires occupants to evacuate for 15 minutes if they live within a 150-foot zone that would be required under the state proposal for pesticides requiring the use of a respirator.

Some worker housing could be classified as “shacks; cardboard windows and doors that don’t close properly,” Kate Suisman, a labor lawyer at the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, told Bloomberg Environment.

Workers don’t know what they are being sprayed with, she said. “They’re scared, they have health issues they feel are related to pesticides.”

Small children living in farm labor camps are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure, Suisman said.

“It is hard to prove causation between exposure and the many negative health outcomes for farm workers, and it will be even harder if information about what is sprayed is not available to workers and worker advocates,” she said.

— With assistance from Tiffany Stecker

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