Critics of a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos insecticides in Oregon argue the bill would not only harm farmers but also set a dangerous legislative precedent.

Supporters of House Bill 2619 argue that it’s necessary for Oregon lawmakers to take action due to uncertainty about the chemical’s regulation at the federal level.

A prohibition on spraying food crops with chlorpyrifos was proposed by the Obama administration but reversed by the Trump administration in 2017.

The federal government’s regulation of the pesticide is currently the subject of a legal fight before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that chlorpyrifos must be banned last year but has more recently reconsidered that decision.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, said he was “alarmed” by the chemical’s toxic effects, including reduced cranial size and cognitive impairment in infants.

The validity of those adverse impacts isn’t in question in the legal dispute, which centers on the jurisdiction of federal courts over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Helm said.

Under these circumstances, it’s appropriate for lawmakers to remove chlorpyrifos from use in Oregon before the court case is resolved, he said.

“We’re here for a short period of time to protect our public,” Helm said.

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, urged the House Rules Committee against passing the HB 2619 because lawmakers “are not scientists” and such regulation is better left to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Under another piece of legislation, House Bill 3058, the ODA would be directed to study the latest scientific data regarding chlorpyrifos and issue recommendations next year.

The ODA can delve into questions about the chemical’s safety more deeply than lawmakers can during a handful of public hearings, she said

If the Legislature does ban the substance, lawmakers would likely be asked to make similar decisions about other agricultural technologies, Boshart Davis said. “We could create an endless rabbit hole of picking winners and losers.”

If Oregon were to ban chlorpyrifos, farmers here would be less competitive than growers in Washington and Idaho but retailers could still bring in onions from those states, said Mark Dickman, a farmer near Mt. Angel.

“It’s a mistake to legislate pesticide use state-by-state,” he said. “EPA is well-equipped to do this, Oregon is not.”

Critics of the bill also cited several examples of crops that lack readily available alternative treatments for some pests, including needle midge in Douglas fir Christmas trees, sod web-worm in fescue grass and seed weevils in clover.

“It’s not a tool we use all the time, it’s a tool we use when we need to target specific pests,” said Jenny Dresler, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Supporters of the law countered that organic farmers use other methods to control insects, such as selective breeding and natural insect predators.

“There are alternatives to chlorpyrifos and alternative modes of agriculture,” said Jonathan Manton, of the Oregon Organic Coalition.

Farmworker advocates testified that a prohibition against chlorpyrifos is justified by the need to protect laborers who commonly spray farm chemicals and are most vulnerable to toxic effects.

Yolanda Gomez, a college student, said her father was a victim of chronic pesticide exposure that led to weight loss, fatigue and ultimately the non-Hodgkins lymphoma that ended his life.

Passing the bill would be a step in the right direction, she said. “We will not let another worker suffer the way my father did.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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