Saturday, August 27, 2011

EPA finds the California Department of Pesticide Regulation discriminated against Latino school children

It looks like rural and low-income communities in California are bearing the brunt of air pollution caused by pesticide use on agricultural land. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently entered into an agreement with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) to resolve a civil rights complaint filed in 1999 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 12-year-old civil rights suit was filed by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) on behalf of advocacy groups and parents from Pajaro Valley, Salinas, and Ventura County, all large strawberry farming communities in California.

The complaint alleged that the CDPR discriminated against Latino school children by annually approving the use of unhealthy levels of a pesticide, methyl bromide, on fields near schools with a high percentage of Latino students. Methyl bromide is a soil fumigant (a pesticide in the form of a gas) used mostly by strawberry farmers. The fumigant is injected into the soil prior to strawberry planting to control pests. Although farmers cover the ground after applying the methyl bromide, some of the gas escapes into the air, endangering the health of farm workers and nearby communities.
A study conducted by the CDPR in 2001 discovered very high concentrations of methyl bromide in the air of at least three public schools in Watsonville and Salinas (both in Santa Cruz County). The methyl bromide levels at Pajaro Middle School in Watsonville were found to be seven times higher than the level considered safe for children. At Pajaro Middle School, 97% of students are of Hispanic or Latino descent and 95% qualify for free or reduced price meals. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis or race, color, and national origin in program receiving federal funding, including operations of a department or agency of the state or local government.

As a condition of the settlement, the CDPR has agreed to expand monitoring of air concentrations of methyl bromide near one of the Watsonville schools named in the original complaint. Brent Newell, a representative from the CRPE, criticized the settlement stating,
The settlement for this violation of their civil rights doesn't provide any substantive relief for parents and for the children named in the complaint or for the generation of Latino school children still bearing the burden of the violation.
As a requirement of the Clean Air Act, in 1993 the EPA implemented a regulation phasing out some substances that deplete the ozone, including methyl bromide. Some farmers, however, are allowed to continue using methyl bromide through an EPA exemption process which allows use of the pesticide when there are no technically or economically feasible alternatives.

Although methyl bromide use has declined, dropping from 17.1 million pounds in 1995 to 5.57 million pounds in 2009, significant amounts of the pesticide are still being used. It is encouraging to see the decline in methyl bromide use, but it does beg the question as to how a "phase out" can be effective when almost 6 million pounds of the toxic pesticide are still being used annually in California. More than 10% of the annual use is applied in a concentrated area of 3,000 acres in Santa Cruz County.

To make matters worse, in December 2010, California approved the use of methyl iodide as a substitute for methyl bromide, despite its inclusion on California's official list of cancer-causing chemicals. The threat to farming communities from the continued use of methyl bromide and the approval of methyl iodide is still very real.

The settlement is historic because it is the first time the EPA has issued a finding of disproportionate negative impact on a community in a civil rights case. Without a legal remedy for those affected, however, what incentives do regulators really have for limiting the use of cancer-causing agents near schools? When no legal recourse is available to the low-income and rural Latino families that are the primary demographic affected, they must turn to their own resources to deal with the consequences. The question is: "Do they have any resources?". Should these families bear the burden of the resulting health problems without any support from those at fault?


Harveen Gill said...
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Courtney Taylor said...

You would assume that when the EPA launched a program to "phase out" methyl bromide that they would actually phase it out. Instead, they created a fairly simple exemption process which allows farmers to still use the pesticide. There is no requirement that the farmers show they are using the pesticide with such care that the risk of gas leaking out is very low. Instead, farmers are only required to show that it is their only option. With farm subsidies and consumer expectations of cheap food, some farmers feel they must resort to methyl bromide use to make any profit off their crops.

KB said...
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hgill said...

For some reason I thought Methyl bromide was no longer in use. Back in the mid 90's many people pushed to get rid of it because, while it can be used safely, it requires carefully putting a protective shield over the crop. Because the gas can easily slip out, there is great room for human error and the gas can easily slip out.

Unfortunately lower income areas bear the brunt of problems such as pesticides, landfills, and bad water, primarily because wealthier citizens can go to their congressperson or city council person and have their trash sent somewhere else, or have their county pesticide ordinances more stringent. Obviously this is a huge problem. Legally speaking, since this occurs in lower income areas, the only recourse the communities seem to have is to rely on legal aid or the Erin Brockovichs' of the world

KB said...

The settlement did not provide any recourse for now or in the future? That does not seem just. I would have hoped that those who are responsible for allowing the pesticide to be used at unhealthy levels would have to pay for the damage it caused to those exposed, especially if the risks of using the pesticide were well known.

I am curious what the rate of illness or other harm caused by methyl bromide is in Santa Cruz County. It also will be interesting to see in the future how many health problems arise in the children who attend or attended these middle schools. Congrats to the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment for at least securing air monitoring for their clients.