A controversial pesticide widely used on California farms is creating another friction point between President Donald Trump and state environmental regulators.
The Trump administration late Wednesday halted plans to ban a pesticide called chlorpyrifos, rejecting conclusions reached by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists during the waning days of the Obama administration that the chemical is harmful to farm workers.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pointedly announced he was “reversing the previous administration’s steps” by allowing farmers to continue using chlorpyrifos. “We are returning to using sound science in decision-making – rather than predetermined results,” he said in a prepared statement.
California officials, who already are battling the Trump administration over climate change and tailpipe emissions, could ramp up the state’s regulation of chlorpryifos in spite of Pruitt’s decision.
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“It’s a pesticide that’s definitely on our radar,” said spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. However, she said the state isn’t considering an outright ban on the chemical.
While applauded by farm groups, Pruitt’s decision infuriated a coalition seeking to ban the pesticide altogether, including the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, United Farm Workers and Natural Resources Defense Council. The coalition noted that chlorpyrifos was banned for most household uses in 2001.
Chlorpyrifos is a toxin that can affect the nervous system; children are particularly vulnerable, according to the advocacy group Californians for Pesticide Reform. Its use in agriculture can compromise food safety, according to the group, but the risk is especially high for farmworkers and people living in rural areas.
“It’s widely used in the Central Valley, a lot of orchard crops, a lot of row crops,” said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, a law firm that sued the EPA in 2014 to get the chemical banned. “It’s probably used in more crops in California than anywhere else.” Goldman said her firm plans to continue fighting in court over the issue.
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Pruitt ignored evidence from EPA scientists that chlorpyrifos was showing up in air quality tests in the San Joaquin Valley in harmful amounts. The air was tested in Salinas, Ripon in San Joaquin County and Shafter in Kern County.
Rotkin-Ellman called on California to prohibit use of the chemical. “This is an important moment for California to lead on public health protections,” she said. “This is something that’s in California communities. We know that it threatens water, we know that it’s in the food, we know the folks who work in the fields bring it home with them.”
The chemical is used on about 1.3 million acres of California farmland, according to data the California Farm Bureau Federation filed with the EPA in 2015. The farm group had argued that chlorpyrifos was critical to controlling pests that attack almonds, apricots, cotton, pistachios and dozens of other California crops, and that there was no evidence that the chemical was hurting drinking water.
“We support the EPA decision,” said the farm bureau’s environmental affairs director, Cynthia Cory, in a prepared statement Thursday. “We are confident that authorized uses of chlorpyrifos products, when used under strict state and federal regulations, offer wide margins of protection for human health and safety.”
In a statement she filed with the EPA in 2015, Cory said, “Products containing chlorpyrifos are critical to California agriculture … There are no known areas with drinking water concerns related to use of chlorpyrifos in California.”
Cannon Michael, a prominent farmer in Los Banos, said the chemical is safe when applied properly. But he added that it’s important for California growers to work cooperatively with state regulators about the pesticide’s use, especially in light of the tensions between California and the Trump administration. California regulators might take drastic action to push back against Washington, and farmers would get caught in the crossfire, Michael said.
“You almost get to the point where California might even just make a point of saying, ‘We’re going to flex our muscle.’ That is going to … hurt the guys who are willing to be collaborative like we are,” said Michael, who leads the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, an influential agricultural water agency.
Farmers applied about 1.3 million pounds of chlorpyrifos to California crops in 2014, according to the Department of Pesticide Regulation. The heaviest use was in the workhorse agricultural counties of the San Joaquin Valley – Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties – but the chemical was also used in smaller quantities in Sacramento and Yolo counties.
“All workers who mix and apply chlorpyrifos pesticides are exposed to levels greater than what EPA considers safe,” the Earthjustice coalition said in a petition to the EPA. “That is the case even with the maximum possible protective clothing, equipment and engineering controls.”