The fight to protect California residents, especially those who live near agricultural fields, from the negative effects of pesticides is far from over, but it is important to pause and take stock of the progress that residents and advocates have accomplished in the last quarter of 2023.
Giving Voices to Frontline Communities
AB 652 was signed into law. This law, authored by Assembly Member Alex Lee (D–San Jose) and strongly supported by pesticide and environmental justice advocates, will create the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC) within the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)—the state agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment by regulating pesticide sales and use.
The creation of this advisory group will allow the voices of those unheard until now to have a formal space to help ensure that the communities on the front lines of pesticide exposure can have a say in the department’s policy-making process.
It is not a secret that the health impacts from pesticides are mostly borne by environmental justice communities—those living near the fields treated with these chemicals, those working in those same fields and those drinking water contaminated by these chemicals. It is fair and just for these residents to play a central role in how pesticides are regulated.
The EJAC will also enable communities impacted by pesticides to hold the DPR accountable, to have a formalized public forum to give recommendations and, ultimately, to help reduce health disparities from pesticide exposure.
As advocates who are constantly listening to the stories of how pesticides affect low-income communities of color, we are thrilled with this accomplishment and are now preparing to police the proper implementation of AB 652.
After all, it was not an easy undertaking because the bill encountered furious opposition from the powerful agricultural industry, that not only has paid lobbyists in Sacramento but also is used to having disproportionate influence over the DPR. And while this influence seems to be changing under the current DPR leadership, we remain vigilant to ensure that the right people and the right voices are represented in the EJAC.
The Right to Know
Tulare County will pilot the pesticide notification project. Although the state continues to allow the application of more than 200 million pounds of pesticides every year, many of which are applied near schools and homes, residents have been deprived of vital information that could protect them from pesticide exposure.
Pesticides are applied and there is no requirement for farmers to notify people living, working or studying near the applications. That will change in 2024, when the DPR will launch a statewide notification program that will give residents “the right to know” before restricted pesticides are applied.
This program had been a demand of advocates and residents for more than a decade, but this demand had been ignored until 2021, when Gov. Gavin Newsom earmarked $10 million in the 2021–22 state budget and instructed the DPR to develop a statewide notification program.
Since then, the DPR has engaged in a process of consultation with various stakeholders (e.g., agricultural commissioners, environmental justice organizations, residents living near agricultural fields, regulated industries) to determine who should receive the notifications and how.
It also launched in 2022 a series of pilot projects in four counties where ag commissioners had volunteered to try out various forms of notification systems. Although Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties are the top three users of pesticides in California, none of these counties wanted to be part of the first series of pilot programs.
However, thanks to the tireless efforts of residents and advocates, that changed. At the end of September 2023, the DPR announced that Tulare County would be one of the pilot sites. This announcement was received with enthusiasm by residents of the small unincorporated community of Terra Bella, who had been meeting for more than a year and had identified pesticides as one of their top sources of air pollution.
Gathered at the cafeteria of the local elementary school on a June afternoon, concerned mothers repeatedly expressed their concerns to Celia Pazos, DPR assistant director for environmental justice and equity. One such example: “At least let us know before you apply the pesticides. I live near an orange grove, and when my kids play outside I hear them screaming, ‘the airplane, the airplane.’ I go out as quickly as I can because it is the airplane applying pesticides.”
Testimonies such as this were repeated by another dozen parents. The message was clear to Pazos: Tulare County needs to be a pilot for the pesticide notification. It was rewarding for these parents to learn that their voices were heard when Pazos returned three months later to announce that indeed some Tulare County residents (150) would be able to sign up to receive notifications. She even had a sign-in sheet to register those interested.
Even with these victories, the work for environmental justice advocates never stops. We now need to ensure that Tulare County residents sign up to receive the notifications and ensure good representation on the EJAC.
Furthermore, the DPR is developing a new strategic plan. We need to ensure that it becomes a more transparent agency, one that really supports public health and is accountable to all stakeholders.
We are also following up on the rulemaking of Telone (a cancer-causing pesticide). A new rule will be announced in November 2023, and we need to ensure that the new regulation protects farmworkers and other occupational bystanders, something that the proposed rule that was released in January 2023 did not do.
Of course, top on our list of priorities is ensuring that the statewide notification system is robust and provides the information that residents need to be protected from pesticide exposure.