A bill that sponsors say is needed to protect farmworkers from pesticide drift was met with concerted disapproval last week from state agencies that say they can't take on new enforcement duties.
YAKIMA — A bill that sponsors say is needed to protect farmworkers from pesticide drift was met with concerted disapproval last week from state agencies that say they can’t take on new enforcement duties.
Farmers also oppose the bill, arguing that the federal government already adequately regulates pesticide use.
The Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection committee on Thursday discussed Senate Bill 6397, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.
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The bill would establish buffer zones so that farms and orchards can’t spray within a half-mile of a day-care center, school, home or any person outside. The half-mile buffer was chosen because that’s the same protection applicators must abide by when they spray near commercial greenhouses.
The proposal would also require written notice to anyone the pesticide applicator “can reasonably determine will likely be outdoors” within the buffer zones.
“We don’t think it’s workable, and it would have a significant negative impact to agriculture,” said Steve George, president of the Yakima County Farm Bureau.
The state departments of Agriculture, Health, Labor and Industries, Natural Resources and the state Noxious Weed Control Board and Department of Natural Resources expressed serious reservations with the bill.
The bill would require the Health Department to investigate violations and issue citations, but the department lacks the staff for such enforcement, said department official Maryanne Guichard at Thursday’s committee hearing.
L&I doesn’t want any new roles, either, said Michael Silverstein, assistant director of the department.
The bill would introduce L&I into pesticide enforcement, which Silverstein said is out of the agency’s mission of safety in the workplace.
He said it would also require a new enforcement mechanism and a new funding source.
In large farming operations, pesticides are delivered in air-blast sprayers or by small airplanes.
Air-blast sprayers mounted on a truck drop the liquid pesticide into a stream of air for delivery onto the crops.
Exposure to pesticides can cause skin, ear and eye irritation, respiratory problems, dizziness and nausea.
Representatives of Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that advocates the bill on behalf of low-income farmworkers, say current regulations don’t stop pesticide applicators from spraying too close to people and homes.
“There actually isn’t a distance limit in Washington state for application of pesticides through these pretty dangerous methods,” said Andrea Schmitt, a lawyer with the firm’s Olympia branch.
Federal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency require applicators to follow instructions on the pesticide label, a detailed explanation of the chemical’s uses and risks.
But Schmitt and other proponents say the labels don’t do enough.
When pesticides are applied to an orchard near a vineyard, the required buffer to protect the grapes from drift is a mile, Schmitt said.
“We think people deserve the same protection as grapes,” she said.
But Yakima Valley farmers and area legislators say the EPA regulations provide adequate protection, and the bill would just muddy the waters.
“It’s a very broad-brush approach to pesticide safety,” said John DeVaney of the Yakima Valley Growers and Shippers Association.
“Humans are protected more than a grape. It’s just done in federal regulation rather than in state law.”
The state Agriculture Department enforces the federal rules, and applicators who violate current EPA regulations can receive steep fines or have their applicator license taken away.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, called the bill an “attack” on agriculture, while Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
The bill “makes me question whether the sponsors of this legislation know what it takes to spray pesticides,” King said in a news release.