A bill that would reduce regulations on aerial pesticide application has moved too quickly through the House. The Senate should give it a much more critical look.
It’s quite clear that pesticide applicators don’t face an overly hostile regulatory environment. The lobbyists pushing the bill forward are former regulators who now work for the industry, a too-common example of the revolving door. And there is a recent, concerning incident which should give senators pause.
Recently, two dozen farmworkers were possibly exposed to a fungicide in a field near Parma, about half of whom wound up in the emergency room, according to reporting by Nicole Foy of the Idaho Statesman.
It rained before investigators got to the scene to collect evidence, so they couldn’t determine definitively whether workers had been exposed. The farmworkers’ testimony wasn’t considered sufficient proof to trigger any serious consequences for the company that dropped the chemical. So instead the company got a letter that essentially told it that it had been careless, to be more careful in the future, and it required it to produce a plan explaining the precautions that would be taken.
This is hardly a heavy regulatory burden.
The sensible response to realizing that it is exceedingly difficult to prove that an applicator violated regulations in ways that could endanger human health would be to strengthen proactive regulations. Increase requirements for notice to neighbors so they can take measures to protect themselves. Increase license fees to provide pesticide investigators the resources necessary to adequately investigate claims of careless or negligent application. (Better investigative resources will better serve falsely accused applicators as well, since it will be more likely to produce evidence that clears them.)
But none of that is in the bill.
The House has responded in the opposite way: A pesticide sprayer may have poisoned more than two dozen farmworkers? Investigators didn’t have the capacity to determine whether they had? The sprayer got a nasty letter in response? We must get rid of that letter.
The bill would throw out language allowing fines for careless or faulty application, meaning for example that applicators could apply dangerous pesticides even if they know unprotected people are in the application area, as long as they have met notice requirements. It would narrow the circumstances in which applicators could be penalized for applying banned or counterfeit pesticides, according to an Attorney General’s opinion.
Another provision that’s concerning is one that would require the regulations to be rewritten every five years through a process known as negotiated rulemaking.
Idaho’s negotiated rulemaking process has a number of advantages. It allows regulators and the regulated community to talk openly, to avoid regulations that are burdensome without providing public benefit. It gets a number of different stakeholders to the table and allows their interests to be weighed.
But constant rule rewriting, in this case, should be expected to produce an even greater disadvantage for those at risk of dangerous pesticide exposure. Pesticide applicators have a former regulator to represent them, who will be in the room every step of the way. Farmworkers have no similar representation, and because they’re badly paid and have tenuous employment protections at best, they’re unlikely to be at the table at all. Neither is there any organization that represents residents who live in areas that place them at risk in careless pesticide application. Certainly, they won’t be there for many workdays every five years, the way applicators’ lobbyists surely will.
The bill has already passed the House, led by an extremely sympathetic Agricultural Affairs Committee. The hearing featured no testimony from anyone exposed to pesticides. Let’s hope the Senate gives it a more thorough vetting.