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Roberti Calls for a Halt to Some Kesterson-Area Harvesting

April 11, 1985|CARL INGRAM and LEO C. WOLINSKY | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti proposed Wednesday that the harvesting of certain crops in the selenium-contaminated Kesterson area of the San Joaquin Valley be suspended until it is determined that they are safe to eat.

The Los Angeles Democrat made the recommendation during a press conference he called to assail a draft of a state report on selenium concentrations that have been found in animals and selected crops in Merced and Fresno counties.

The draft report was prepared by the state Department of Food and Agriculture for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which has ordered the Kesterson Reservoir gradually shut down by next summer because of heavy concentrations of selenium, a naturally occuring trace metal.

The draft warned on its cover that the study had "not received final analytical review" and "substantial data errors may exist in this report." Those errors would be corrected in a final version, the draft said.

Health Hazard

However, Roberti deplored the draft as "useless, bungled" and a waste of $421,000, because it failed to draw a conclusion on whether concentrations of selenium in such crops as cantaloupes and sugar beets constituted a public health hazard.

"Why are they not telling us now whether we can eat lettuce, cantaloupe, sugar beets that are going to be harvested in the Kesterson area?" he asked.

Roberti, who ordered three Senate committees to hold a joint fact-finding hearing on the issue, told reporters that there was "no justification at all for allowing continuation of the harvest without any study or indication that the public health is affected one way or the other."

Neither the federal nor the state government has decided at what levels selenium might be a hazard to human health.

Rex Magee, an associate director of the Food and Agriculture Department who helped conduct the study, insisted that the project was never intended to reach conclusions on whether certain levels of selenium in western San Joaquin Valley farm products were not safe.

Gather Data

Magee said it was the purpose of the study to gather information on concentrations of selenium, chromium and nickel in certain farm products and to turn the data over to medical and "other scientists to determine whether the levels are safe." Cows, sheep, cantaloupes, cottonseed, alfalfa and sugar beets were studied.

Selenium is a requirement of a proper diet but in heavy concentrations has led to death of waterfowl at Kesterson and to the birth of deformed birds. The trace metal leaches from the soil in agricultural drainage water and is carried away in the San Luis Drain to Kesterson, a wildlife refuge in Merced County.

Roberti rejected the notion that his concerns might be considered "alarmist." He insisted that the "least we could expect is a conclusion to put all our minds at rest as to whether there is a health problem or not in the Kesterson area."

In a related development, 26 Assembly Democrats charged that Gov. George Deukmejian had created a conflict of interest by continuing to allow regulation of pesticides by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which was established to promote farming.

In a letter to the state's Little Hoover Commission, the Democrats said the task should be assigned to a new department of waste management that Deukmejian is proposing to control toxic and nontoxic wastes. The commission, which is charged with promoting efficiency and economy in government, must review the governor's plan for a waste management department before forwarding it to the Legislature.

Toxic Wastes

Administration officials maintain that the Food and Agriculture Department is already doing a good job regulating pesticides. They claim the new department would have a role in cases in which pesticides become toxic wastes.

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