Pesticide bill, diluted to a study, passes Washington Legislature

The Washington House has followed the Senate in passing a bill setting up a work group to study whether the state should have more laws regarding agricultural pesticide applications.

OLYMPIA — Pesticide legislation that Washington lawmakers recently passed only faintly resembles the bill that unnerved farmers in January.

Senate Bill 6529 no longer requires growers to notify the state Health Department at least four business days before spraying. Gone is also a mandate to file monthly public reports on chemical use.

The preamble has shed claims that applications are a “consistent source of pesticide exposure.” The words “notification” or “notify” appeared 14 times in the original bill, but not at all in the amended version sent to the governor.

The bill’s introduction now acknowledges “huge gains” in pesticide safety and recognizes agriculture’s “interest in minimizing human exposure.”

The measure, shrunk to three pages from the original 11, imposes no new regulations. It does appoint a work group with four tasks: review current laws, see how pesticides are applied, look at existing reports and consider reviving a state panel to evaluate incidents.

The bill, nevertheless, was criticized on the House floor as needless and worrisome.

“Here we are, creating a new group of folks who are going to go and try to find a problem,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw.

As introduced by Seattle Democrat Rebecca Saldana, the bill was alarming enough for representatives of the state’s wheat and potato farmers to occupy show up at a public hearing in January. Berry growers, organic farmers and pesticide applicators also turned out.

Farmers said they don’t have four business days to react to insects and diseases. They testified that pesticide use is highly regulated, and letting chemicals drift off target is illegal and rare.

After that, the bill was transformed. The version that passed the Senate 45-2 was put forward by Moses Lake Republican Judy Warnick, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee.

The House took up the bill and passed it 57-41 on Feb. 28. Before the vote, Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, voiced some of the original thinking behind the measure. She said the work group was being formed “so we can study the challenges as it relates to health and safety and come up with recommendations to make sure everyone in our state is safe and healthy.”

The bill directs the work group, co-chaired by the agriculture and health departments, to meet over the summer and report to the Legislature by Nov. 1 on whether there should be more laws.

Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, called the bill “a little bit of a witch hunt.”

He said he spent a decade on the House Labor Committee hearing complaints about farm pesticides. “For 10 straight years nobody could prove to me or anybody else there was really an issue,” he said.

Some House members from agricultural districts, however, supported the bill.

Yakima County Republican Rep. Bruce Chandler said it might lead to re-establishing the Pesticide Incident Reporting and Tracking Review Panel.

Between 1990 and 2009, the panel of state officials, health professionals and university researchers evaluated pesticide incidents on farms and elsewhere. The last report showed slightly more off-farm cases of pesticide exposure than on-farm cases.

The panel was disbanded by a budget cut. The information in the lengthy reports could have informed this year’s debate on SB 6529.

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