By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

South Carolina has abandoned regulations that hindered nursery stock shipments from the West Coast, capitulating to demands from California and Oregon nursery groups.

On April 19, the state regulators withdrew regulations aimed at preventing the spread of phytophthora ramorum, or sudden oak death, into South Carolina, according to court documents.

The regulations, enacted in 2009, imposed additional inspection and notification requirements on nursery shipments from areas afflicted by the fungal pathogen.

Two nursery groups -- the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers and the Oregon Association of Nurseries -- filed a legal complaint against South Carolina in March.

The complaint claimed that federal law preempted South Carolina's regulations, rendering them unconstitutional. Monrovia Nursery of Azusa, Calif., and Woodburn Nurseries and Azaleas of Woodburn, Ore., joined in the lawsuit.

Earlier this month, plaintiffs asked a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking South Carolina's regulations.

On April 19, South Carolina announced the state was withdrawing the regulations to "avoid unnecessary litigation and attendant litigation costs," according to court documents. Attorneys for the state could not be reached for comment.

"They saw the writing on the wall and saw they didn't have a firm position," said John Aguirre, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

By suspending enforcement of the rules, South Carolina regulators have rendered the complaint moot, effectively ending the litigation, said Aguirre.

If the regulations had been revoked by a federal judge, the decision would have created a legal precedent, he said. However, that process would have been more expensive and time-consuming.

South Carolina's decision to voluntarily withdraw the regulations should be enough to prevent other states from adopting similar rules to the detriment of Western nursery producers, Aguirre said.

"I don't anticipate South Carolina or another state will seek to implement p. ramorum regulations that differ from the USDA's in the near future," he said. "A patchwork of regulations simply isn't tenable for growers who ship nationwide."

States are legally allowed to enact rules intended to stop the spread of plant diseases only until the USDA develops federal regulations, said Robert Dolezal, executive director of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began regulating p. ramorum in 2002.

"Once the federal government begins regulating a pest in interstate commerce, the states are banned from doing so," said Dolezal, noting that the group prevailed in a similar case against Kentucky in 2004.

Because California doesn't issue the phytosanitary certificates required under South Carolina's regulations, nursery growers hadn't been able to ship to that state since last year, he said.

Dolezal said nursery sales to South Carolina may again reach $3 million to $5 million a year, though the regulations may have hurt some producers' market share.

"The challenge is they've damaged some marketing relationships," he said.

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