After nearly two years of wrangling, a bill aimed at giving agricultural officials more power to regulate pesticide applications near schools has made it to the governor's desk.
The legislation, written by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), would allow county agricultural commissioners to place restrictions on the use of all pesticides applied on farms within a quarter-mile of schools.
Currently, only certain pesticides are subject to such restrictions.
"It was a long process, but I'm very pleased," said Jackson, who believes the bill stands a good chance of earning the governor's signature.
"Clearly, our farmers don't want to injure our school kids," she said. "Yet we have had policies in place that, when you get a few bad actors, have had a serious and detrimental impact on our kids."
The bill, which passed the Assembly last week and the Senate the week before, was inspired by an incident two years ago in Ventura.
Prosecutors sued citrus rancher Dan Campbell and his foreman, Raul Adame, for allegedly allowing the pesticide Lorsban to drift onto Mound Elementary School, which is across the street from Campbell's 200-acre lemon orchard.
Two students at the east Ventura elementary school were sent home, and dozens of others complained of dizziness and nausea after the incident.
Campbell settled the case in April by agreeing not to spray near the school while classes are in session and paying $25,000 in penalties and restitution. The rancher also agreed to notify school officials at least 72 hours before any scheduled pesticide application on days that classes are in session.
However, agricultural officials still faced a dilemma: The pesticide in this case was an unrestricted chemical, meaning other growers would be able to apply it without notifying school or farm officials.
Jackson's bill seeks to eliminate that problem by allowing agricultural commissioners, when they deem it necessary, to place conditions on the use of "nonrestricted" chemicals within a quarter-mile of schools.
David Buettner, a deputy agricultural commissioner in Ventura County, said his office considers 29 schools to be adjacent to agriculture. Of those, he said fewer than 10 have been the subject of problems or complaints related to pesticide use.
The legislation "may increase our workload to some degree, although we've been dealing with these issues for quite some time," Buettner said. "The main thing it allows us to do is be proactive rather than reactive."
Ventura resident Mary Haffner is not comforted.
She and other members of Community & Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning have butted heads with the county agricultural commissioner in the past over what the group considers lax pesticide use enforcement.
Haffner had two children at Mound School during the Lorsban incident. She has since transferred them to another school.
"I'm glad there is some legislation addressing the issue, but I don't think it goes far enough," she said. "It relies very heavily on the agricultural commissioner to be proactive. However, in the past we have had some problems with the agricultural commissioner being proactive."
Jackson's legislation was supported by a broad coalition of groups, including the Ventura County Farm Bureau and the Environmental Defense Center.
Eric Cardenas, director of an Environmental Defense Center project that seeks to reduce health risks associated with agricultural pesticides, said he expects agricultural commissioners in the county and the rest of the state to make good use of the expanded powers they are likely to be given.
And he expects environmental groups and community activists such as Haffner to hold them accountable if they don't.
"This bill accomplishes what we set out to accomplish, which is protecting children," Cardenas said.
If signed by the governor, the law would increase the maximum fine for serious pesticide-related violations from $1,000 to $5,000. It also includes language encouraging school districts to address in their safety plans steps to take in the event of pesticide drift.
Jackson said in order to hold on to the broad base of support she had built for the legislation, she was forced to narrow the scope of her original legislation. It initially called for an increase in regulatory oversight of pesticide application within a quarter-mile of all sensitive sites, such as day-care centers, nursing homes and hospitals.
But she said she believes the legislation is a solid first step toward preventing future pesticide-related problems.
"As children return to school, the passage of this bill provides hope that schools will soon be free of the threat of pesticide drift," Jackson said.