Quick Take:

California likes to brag about its robust environmental laws, writes local activist Woody Rehanek, but it rarely talks about the troubling pattern of pesticide use and public health. A September “People’s Tribunal on Pesticide Use and Civil Rights in California” helped illuminate disparities in exposure. It also highlights problems in our state’s decentralized regulatory system, which allows county agricultural commissioners to wield unchecked power. A proposed solution, Assembly Bill 652, aims to establish stronger rules to hold the Department of Pesticide Regulation accountable for these practices.

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California’s regulatory agencies — especially the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) — boast that we have the toughest environmental laws designed to protect public health in the country.

Yet over the decades, it has been devilishly difficult for people with negative health impacts from pesticide exposures to prove their cases in court.

Despite an abundance of quality information on the relationship between pesticides and negative public health outcomes, there are enormous legal and scientific barriers to actually proving direct harm — of finding a “smoking gun” — directly linking pesticides and ill health.

Daily, we’re exposed to hundreds of minute chemical residues in furniture, clothing, water, soil, plants, cars, carpets, building materials, pillows, etc.

How do you find a smoking gun when the world’s on fire?

With this in mind, a mixture of farmworkers, activists, scientists, community leaders, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, Indigenous spokespersons, spiritual leaders, and legal experts met in the Central Valley town of Lindsay on Sept. 12 for a “People’s Tribunal on Pesticide Use and Civil Rights in California.” Its purpose was to share stories of pesticide exposures and harm with a focus on patterns and links that result in health disparities. Experts in the field used pesticide application patterns and worked to match them with demographic health data.

Gregg Macey of UC Irvine Law Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources, obtained resources for the tribunal and did more than 60 interviews. The stories he heard led him to believe that discrimination and civil rights violations are occurring.

Rather than having to prove direct causation between pesticides and human harm, he views the byzantine and balkanized regulatory system itself as a violation of civil rights.

He has been gathering evidence through personal interviews, focus groups and tribunal testimony that communities of color are disproportionately exposed to and affected by pesticides. This relationship between these testimonies and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear.

And it directly stems from the regulatory framework itself.

A major problem is that DPR has delegated the enforcement of California pesticide regulations to each of 58 different county agriculture commissioners (CACs). These commissioners apply the laws and interact with citizens in uneven, contradictory, inconsistent and often prejudicial ways. Although county ag commissioners are approved by county supervisors, those supervisors have no oversight authority.

Researchers documented stories of people exposed to pesticides to look for links between chemicals and illness.
Researchers documented stories of people exposed to pesticides to look for links between chemicals and illness. Credit: Via Woody Rehanek

You would think that DPR has oversight authority over the commissioners, but basically it gives the commissioners carte blanche to interpret the laws as they see fit.

CACs are subject, to some degree, to the whims of local political forces, but beholden to no one.

Some run their commissions like their own private fiefdoms. Others are receptive and responsive to public input to counterbalance the heavy influences of big agriculture and the chemical lobby in the ways pesticide laws are written.

When the Santa Cruz County ag commissioner bans aerial pesticide spraying and Monterey County’s CAC allows it, discrimination, contrary to the equal protection clause of the Constitution, is taking place.

When Santa Cruz County requires 1,3-D fumigant gas application under “impermeable” tarps and San Joaquin counties allow 1,3-D applications in the open ground, someone’s civil rights are being violated. And so on.

Another problem is that neither DPR nor any county ag commissioners consider the interactions and cumulative impacts of multiple pesticides over time as required by the state Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). A further CEQA requirement — considering less toxic alternatives to specific pesticide applications — is regularly and roundly ignored. When these problems are pointed out to CACs, they routinely dismiss them out of hand.

In Montana, several courageous youths sued their state — and won in a lower court — claiming that Montana’s constitution guarantees “a clean and healthy future environment.” This guarantee, they said, was being violated by oil, gas and mining developments.

California’s fraught regulatory framework similarly violates the civil rights of its citizens. One step toward equity is to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 652, a bill currently on his desk mandating that DPR form an environment justice committee to hold the agency accountable for discriminatory practices.

Woody Rehanek and grandson Baz.
Woody Rehanek and grandson Baz. Credit: Via Woody Rehanek

In terms of pesticide exposures and climate change, California’s farmworker communities are extremely vulnerable. The risks and impacts are unevenly distributed in inequitable patterns.

Stay tuned. In a monetized system skewed toward corporate money and power, a court of law is often the only level playing field.

Woody Rehanek was a farmworker in Washington state for 18 years and a special education teacher in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for 18 years. He is a member of SASS (Safe Ag Safe Schools) and a founding member of CORA (Campaign for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture). He lives in Watsonville. His previous piece for Lookout ran in December.