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Davis Signs Bill on Pesticide Use Near Schools

Agriculture: Law allows all chemicals applied within a quarter mile of a campus to be regulated.

September 13, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years after students and teachers at a Ventura elementary school were sickened by a drifting pesticide, Gov. Gray Davis has signed legislation giving agricultural officials more power to regulate such applications near schools.

The legislation, introduced by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), allows county agricultural commissioners to place restrictions on the use of all pesticides applied on farms within a quarter mile of schools.

Currently, only so-called "restricted" pesticides are subject to such regulation.

"The purpose is to make sure we don't have inadvertent drift coming onto our schools and making our teachers and children ill," said Jackson, flanked Thursday by agricultural officials, environmental activists and a top Ventura County prosecutor.

"It was a team effort," Jackson said of the two-year push to get her bill signed into law. "We all came together to do what was best for our children."

Jackson announced the governor's signature during a news conference at Mound Elementary School in east Ventura, where a pesticide drift occurred in the fall of 2000.

The incident prompted Jackson's legislative effort, an endeavor she said appeared to be on life support at times, but was ultimately held together by a broad coalition of farming and environmental interests.

On Nov. 8, 2000, two students were sent home and dozens of other students and teachers complained of dizziness and nausea after an early morning application of the insecticide Lorsban on a 200-acre lemon orchard across the street from the campus.

Tests later revealed that small amounts of the noxious pesticide had drifted into the school.

Those results were turned over to Ventura County prosecutors, who filed a civil lawsuit in May 2001 against rancher Dan Campbell and his foreman, Raul Adame, for allegedly allowing the pesticide to drift.

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 had a problem. The pesticide in this case was an unrestricted chemical, meaning other growers would be able to apply it without having to notify school or farm officials.

Jackson's legislation seeks to solve 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.

It also increases the maximum fine for serious pesticide-related violations from $1,000 to $5,000 and encourages school districts to formulate steps to take in the event of pesticide drift.

Agricultural officials say there are about 30 schools adjacent to farms in Ventura County. Of those, fewer than 10 have been the subject of problems or complaints related to pesticide use.

"The vast majority of growers in Ventura County are responsible and very diligent in their practices," said Rex Laird, executive director of the county's farm bureau. "But as with most laws, this applies to the 1% who don't seem to get it."

Jackson's legislation was supported by a coalition that included the Environmental Defense Center, which in the past has been at odds with agricultural officials over the enforcement of pesticide use.

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