With an infusion of an extra $3 million this year, California's pesticide agency will beef up enforcement and revive axed programs to meet a new goal of eliminating all serious pesticide poisonings.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for the Department of Pesticide Regulation increased 5% this year to nearly $69 million, with the extra money coming from a crackdown on unpaid pesticide sales fees at big-box retailers, including Costco, Home Depot and Wal-Mart.
Department director Mary-Ann Warmerdam said Thursday that the funds will allow the agency to "aim high and aim strategically," adding new employees to enforce regulations protecting farmworkers, public health and the environment and reinstating programs that were eliminated in 2003 during the state's budget crisis.
"This budget will put us in the best position that we've been in for some time to help protect the public, the environment and the regulated community. We're now getting to the point that we have the resources to enforce the laws," she said.
"With this support, we'll aim for zero -- no more major pesticide incidents on the farm or in urban settings," she added.
Tons of commercial pesticides -- 194 million pounds in 2005 -- are applied annually to crops in California. Many of the compounds are highly toxic: able to inflict acute injuries such as respiratory distress and nausea or produce long-term effects such as cancer and reproductive or neurological damage.
Every year, about 50 major pesticide incidents -- when more than one person is sickened by pesticides around farms, homes or offices -- are reported in California.
When commercial pesticides are used unsafely or illegally, farmworkers, as well as people who live or work near fields and those exposed by exterminator co-workers in orchards south of Sacramento sought medical help when a potent organophosphate pesticide drifted in from a nearby asparagus field sprayed by a crop duster.
Fifteen months ago, several hundred people in a residential neighborhood of Salinas were exposed to a toxic fumigant when a strawberry grower illegally used the substance in overhead sprinklers.
And two years ago, five children in the Los Angeles area were exposed during an exterminator's termite control operation at a structure.
"I understand zero incidents is an aggressive goal. But anything less than that is unacceptable," Warmerdam said. "It means we are conceding a level of exposure to workers and the public, and frankly that is not our job. We're responsible for the safe use of these materials."
Zero tolerance for serious injuries is one of several initiatives recently begun by the Schwarzenegger administration to better protect Californians and their environment from pest-killing chemicals.
New rules on toxic, smog-causing fumigants that drift from fields will be detailed in the next two months. The agency has also undertaken an evaluation of pyrethroids, popular compounds in many flea-killing products that also kill aquatic life in streams.
The $69-million budget is the largest since the pesticide department was created in 1991, and when adjusted for inflation, is comparable to funding in 2001, before the state's severe budget cuts, said department spokesman Glenn Brank.
The agency is entirely funded by fees imposed on pesticide sellers and by other special funds. Money from the state's general fund was cut off in 2003.
Last year, a new state law gave the department the authority to take action against large retailers that do not pay state pesticide fees that are based on wholesale sales. That resulted in the $3-million revenue increase in the collected fees, which in the past have come mostly from agricultural sellers.
The agency plans to hire 15 new employees as well as renew grants that used to be awarded to farm groups for shifting to less-toxic alternatives for killing insects, weeds and other pests.
The number of employees responsible for informing farmworkers about safety issues such as protective gear and proper pesticide application will grow from nine to 14.
Six new enforcement employees will be hired in regional offices, and the amount of enforcement money distributed to county agricultural commissioners will be increased 4%, or $715,000.
Grants, eliminated in 2003, for groups launching lower-risk pest management strategies will be renewed with $780,000 this year. Such grants could help strawberry growers in Ventura County and elsewhere seeking substitutes for methyl bromide, a fumigant phased out internationally because it depletes the ozone layer.
Environmentalists and farm groups Thursday applauded the new programs in the governor's budget.
"They are doing a pretty good job of putting the money where people think there is the most need for it," said Susan Kegley, senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network North America, based in San Francisco.