Accusing state regulators of two decades of neglect, environmental watchdogs sued the California Department of Pesticide Regulation on Wednesday for allegedly failing to enforce a law aimed at monitoring and reducing the amount of pesticide that pollutes the air.
The suit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, accuses the agency of failing to fulfill a 1984 mandate to review all pesticides as potential air contaminants and regulate those found to jeopardize public health.
In the 20 years that the law has been on the books, the lawsuit said the department has completed that review for only four agricultural chemicals. More than 900 pesticides are registered for use in California, the lawsuit said.
"They are not doing their job," said Mati Waiya, executive director of the Oxnard-based Wishtoyo Foundation. The group is one of seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
"This law was put in place to protect the health of the community," Waiya said. "Unfortunately, it takes action like this to get them to do their work."
Department spokesman Glenn Brank said he couldn't comment on the suit because litigation is pending.
But he noted that the department had listed more than 30 pesticides as toxic air contaminants through an administrative process that is less cumbersome than the one outlined by state law but that has the same effect.
"The Department of Pesticide Regulation wants to protect the environment through legal processes that allow us to work most efficiently and effectively," he said. "This litigation is about process and they don't like our process."
At news conferences Wednesday in Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield and Oxnard, environmental groups said enforcement of the law has become more pressing as housing developments and schools push closer to farmland.
Of the 172 million pounds of pesticides used in California in 2002, more than 90% were prone to drifting from where they were applied and becoming airborne toxins, according to the suit.
"Analysis of pesticide air monitoring results and pesticide use data indicates that millions of Californians are likely to be at risk of ill health from pesticide drift," the suit said. "Due to their occupation, farmers and farmworkers are the most highly exposed groups, but urban and suburban residents are also vulnerable."
In Ventura County, environmental advocates pointed to a 2000 incident in which a highly toxic pesticide drifted onto a Ventura elementary school, sickening students and teachers.
That incident led to passage of a state law that allows county officials to restrict pesticide applications within a quarter-mile of schools.
Mary Haffner, a Ventura attorney and member of Community and Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning, said millions of pounds of agricultural chemicals applied each year in Ventura County should be listed as toxic air contaminants.
The lawsuit seeks to push the state agency to assess all pesticides in a timely manner and take action to reduce the health risks of those found to pollute the air.
"For 20 years, the Department of Pesticide Regulation has inexcusably failed to enforce this law," Haffner said. "It's one of the good laws. We're just asking that it be enforced."