SACRAMENTO — Heeding calls to protect California agriculture, the Senate on Wednesday passed legislation pushed by the Deukmejian Administration to greatly restrict the public's ability to challenge state pesticide spraying.
Rural Democrats teamed up with Republicans to defeat two major amendments--one that would have severely weakened the bill, and another aimed at protecting farm workers from accidental toxic poisoning.
In the end, opposition from environmentalists and consumer groups gave way to heavy lobbying by the Administration, and the bill was sent to the Assembly on a 24-10 vote.
The Assembly will be asked to concur in previous Senate amendments that drastically changed the bill, at the Administration's request, into its present form.
"This ensures that the California Department of Food and Agriculture's important pest eradication projects will not be stopped by default due to delays in the judicial process," said Sen. Rose Ann Vuich (D-Dinuba), who carried the bill on the Senate floor.
"If we sit back and wait for the bugs to multiply, there's going to be a heck of a lot more pesticides used."
Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena), who tried to jam amendments into the bill in an unsuccessful effort to weaken it, charged that the Deukmejian Administration had abused the legislative process by quietly trying to push the hastily drafted measure through the Legislature in the final days of the session.
"This sets a very dangerous precedent," Torres declared.
The bill, backed by influential farming interests that believe the courts have unfairly interfered with pest eradication efforts, would scrap requirements for environmental impact reports and limit the kinds of court challenges that are aimed at blocking pest eradication efforts that use toxic pesticides.
State Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill had the measure drafted after a Humboldt County Superior Court judge in July ordered a full environmental review of a state pesticide spraying program intended to eradicate the apple maggot, a tiny pest infesting the Northern California apple crop.
During the Senate debate, Berryhill, a former legislator, watched intently and lobbied senators in the back of the chamber.
The bill's provisions go well beyond the apple maggot case. It would affect all state pesticide spraying programs, limiting the amount of time an opponent has to file a suit and preventing the courts from considering public health consequences even when spraying is planned for densely populated areas.
Assemblyman Norman Waters (D-Plymouth), who is carrying the bill for the Administration, said he expects a tough fight when the measure is debated in the Assembly. Some influential Assembly Democrats have expressed concern about the bill's effect on court authority.
But Waters said that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has agreed to mediate the dispute so that the bill can be approved before the Legislature adjourns on Friday.
Wednesday's floor debate became a tug of war between the interests of farmers who want to protect their $14-billion-a-year industry and those of urban residents and environmentalists who are concerned about the health effects of aerial pesticide spraying, such as the 1981 battle against the Meditteranean fruit fly.
The Torres amendments--rejected on a 18-18 vote--would have limited the measure to the eradication of the apple maggot and kept present court procedures intact.
The other amendment, by Sen. Nicholas Petris (D-Oakland), would have added regulations requiring farmers to post warning signs around their fields when using dangerous pesticides. That amendment failed on an 18-19 vote.
In a spirited debate, Vuich told the Senate that either of the amendments coming just days before the Legislature's scheduled adjournment "would, in effect, derail the bill."
Vuich argued that unless the state has a free hand in its pest eradication programs, "growers would effectively be driven out of business" in the event that certain pests become established in the state.
Berryhill already has powers to bypass environmental reviews and the courts to order pesticide spraying, but only when the governor declares that the situation represents an emergency that immediately threatens the state's agricultural industry.