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Nursery Group Wins Dispute

August 03, 2004|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The trade association representing the $2.35-billion California nursery industry has won a key legal dispute, forcing the agriculture commissioner of Kentucky to reverse a blockade of California nursery plants.

Since spring, the industry has been fighting with Kentucky and nine other states that have unilaterally imposed bans on California plants to prevent the spread of sudden oak death disease, which has afflicted some California forests and commercial nurseries.

The California Assn. of Nurseries and Garden Centers argued in a lawsuit filed July 9 in Frankfort, Ky., that federal law prevents individual states from establishing rules that deviate from an established U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine and inspection program.

When confronted with the lawsuit, Kentucky agreed to adhere to the USDA rules, said Robert Jones, an attorney with Kentucky's Office of the Attorney General. But he said the state still "feels like there is a significant problem that needs to be better addressed by the federal government," and it would seek USDA permission to impose a more restrictive quarantine of California plants.

Nonetheless, Kentucky signed a consent decree Friday that would prevent the state from "implementing or enforcing any regulations, order policies or quarantines ... that are inconsistent or in excess of USDA's regulation of the pathogen." The settlement was approved by U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood.

California nursery officials viewed this lawsuit as a key test case that will help open up other states with similar bans. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Delaware, Louisiana, West Virginia and Montana all deviate from the USDA rules by varying degrees.

"The message is clear: If California abides by federal law and has plants certified as clean, the law says you can't block our products," said Elaine Thompson, president of the nursery association.

Camellias and rhododendrons, staples of California's nursery trade, are known hosts of oak death disease, which was first spotted in a wild oak forest in Marin County nine years ago. It moved on to commercial nurseries in the area, prompting the USDA to slap a quarantine on 13 Northern California counties. Additional inspection rules were adopted for Southern California when the pathogen was detected at two local nurseries in March.

California ships about $500 million of plants to other states annually. The state bans, and the destruction of infected plants and the expense of complying with the USDA's actions related to oak death disease, have collectively cost producers millions of dollars since March.

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