California taking on pesticide pollution

California officials are mounting a major new initiative to clean up the state’s smoggy farm regions with new regulations and policies that will target hundreds of pesticides.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation has developed a strategy for eliminating tons of smog-forming gases that waft daily from fields treated with fumigants and other agricultural chemicals.

The agency has already asked manufacturers to begin reformulating more than 700 insecticides, herbicides and other pest-killing chemicals, and next year, it plans to impose stricter rules on the use of soil fumigants, which are highly polluting gases that account for about one-quarter of all pounds of pesticides applied on California crops.

The state initiative would establish the only air pollution standards for pesticides in the United States. The aim is to begin cleaning up emissions soon, reducing air pollution from pesticides at least 20 percent by 2008.

“For years, there have been complaints that we dragged our feet as air quality declined,” said Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of the pesticide agency. “That is history. This administration is committed to cleaning up our air and DPR (the Department of Pesticide Regulation) will do its part to achieve that goal.”

Most pest-killing chemicals contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which evaporate from fields and are a key component of ozone, California’s most abundant air pollutant.

For about a decade, California’s smog plans have included goals for reducing fumes from pesticide use. But until now, no steps were taken by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, the agency that controls which chemicals are legal in California and how they are used.

In April, a federal judge ruling in a lawsuit filed by a public interest group, ordered California to cut pesticide emissions 20 percent by 2008. The pesticide agency appealed the court ruling, but Warmerdam has decided to take action anyway.

“We believe this initiative will go beyond the court order in terms of improving air quality,” said pesticide department spokesman Glenn Brank .

Under the state’s plan, the most immediate smog benefit – at least a 20 percent reduction – would come from controls on fumigants.

Mark Murai, president of the California Strawberry Commission, said Monday that the industry decided a year ago to move toward emission reductions, and has earmarked half a million dollars for developing new field techniques for fumigants.

“We’re definitely not sticking our heads in the sand. We want to be part of the solution,” said Murai, a third-generation strawberry grower.

Fumigants such as methyl bromide, metam sodium and chloropicrin are injected into fields before they are planted to sterilize soil and kill diseases, insects and weeds that threaten strawberries, almonds, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and other crops. Because they are gases, they contain high concentrations of smog-forming compounds, and some seep into the air. They also are highly toxic and can have neurological and reproductive effects when inhaled.

By the end of 2007, the pesticide department plans to adopt regulations that require growers either to control fumigant emissions through new techniques – such as deeper soil injections and better tarps – or reduce the tons used.

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