By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • August 2, 2016
It might not seem controversial to require regular certification for handling highly toxic chemicals, or to restrict their usage to workers over 18 years. But proposed changes to federal pesticide rules with those provisions, which generated hundreds of public comments over the last two years are largely opposed.
In late 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changes to existing rules that protect farm workers who are certified to apply “restricted use pesticides,” or RUPs for short. These are chemicals so dangerous that they aren’t sold to the general public and require training for safe use.
Among the proposed provisions are setting a federal minimum age for working with RUPs of 18, rather than 16 or 17, as is the case in some states now. The draft language also requires a RUP applicator renew his or her certification every three years, rather than leaving it to state discretion. And it would require expanding training requirements for workers being supervised by certified pesticide applicators, since they may be asked to apply pesticides, too.
So what’s the problem with these chemicals? The EPA maintains a 17-page list of RUPs, and the primary criteria for inclusion on the list is acute toxicity, which can range from endocrine disruption to poisoning to potential carcinogenic properties. (One farmworker group submitting comments questioned whether they should be allowed at all: “Continued use of these RUPs should not be permitted,” wrote the Farmworker Association of Florida, which went on to support the new rule.)
Of 1,323 comments from the public, some 736 came in from civic groups, agencies and private citizens. Four organizations with long histories of supporting farm workers’ rights—Human Rights Watch, Farmworker Justice, Oregon Law Center and the Farmworkers Association of Florida—submitted lengthy letters of support. There, they detailed evidence of the dangers faced by pesticide applicators, particularly young adults, who are particularly vulnerable to damage to their hormone levels and reproductive health, as well as the risk of environmental contamination poised by pesticide applicators who are poorly trained.
Opposition to the rule dominated the remaining comments. Some came from agencies and trade groups, like the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, representing agricultural interests at the state level, worried that the proposed rules would prompt state departments to abandon their own training programs.
The biggest source of comment, though, seemed to be a concern about overreach by government agencies. One letter, submitted anonymously, identified the writer as a “farmer, rancher and pesticide applicator in Texas”—and was received by the federal register 251 times.That letter urged allowing sixteen year-olds to use the chemicals, for example, and argued that a five-year certification would be sufficient. A second anonymous letter concerned about the impact of the rule in Oregon, which worried that the increase in certification requirements would not have “any appreciable benefit,” came in 40 times. Hundreds of other comments have been posted the site, and nearly all repeated the same basic point: The current regulations are sufficient, and restricting applicator ages or requiring more training for use with the chemicals is overkill.
And that may matter. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t comment on the rule itself, the agency takes those public comments very seriously when considering its recommendations to the EPA, says Sheryl Kunickis, director of the Agricultural Research Service’s Office of Pesticide Management Policy.
“There are times when…we waived [comment to EPA],” says Kunickis. “We are looking at the bigger picture for the whole community that falls under agriculture. This [rule] is important, so we’ll have comments on it.”
But whatever it does, it’s not going to be a quick fix. After two rounds of public comments closed this past January, the draft rule and comments circulated to the USDA and members of Congress; recommendations for a final rule were due to the EPA by July 30. Once the final rule is written—taking into account the public comments—there’s another round of comments from federal agencies before it returns to the EPA and, eventually, goes into effect. That makes it unlikely the new rule would go into effect before the election, which means it may change even further after November.