Senate panel strips down pesticide-alert bill

A Washington State Department of Agriculture training manager drives an air-blast sprayer through a pear orchard in Wenatchee. The Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced a bill Feb. 6 to form a work group on pesticide safety.

OLYMPIA — A pesticide-notification bill that only faintly resembles the one that alarmed Washington farmers was passed Tuesday by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The bill’s sole surviving provision calls for appointing a work group to study how to make spraying on farms safer. The legislation has been so reworked that it has the backing of the Washington Potato and Onion Association.

“We’re supporting the bill as it is now,” the association’s lobbyist, Jim Jesernig, said. “We’d like to do everything we can to reduce drift.”

As introduced, Senate Bill 6529 provoked a backlash from growers and farm groups. The bill’s key feature was to require farms to inform the state Health Department four business days before spraying pesticides. The department would give nearby schools and residents two-hour notice.

The bill also called for fining farmers who failed to provide the department with detailed monthly reports of pesticide applications. Columbia Legal Services, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Education Association and other groups endorsed the bill.

The premise of the bill, introduced by Seattle Democrat Rebecca Saldana, was that residents and school children near farms are constantly exposed to pesticides. The legislation that passed the budget committee on a 16-6 vote was stripped of such accusations.

The bill makes no immediate demand on farmers. A panel of legislators and state officials, including the Department of Agriculture, would be charged with developing recommendations by Nov. 1 for improving the safety of pesticide applications.

The work group could ask for advice from farmers, pesticide applicators, labor leaders, school officials and environmentalists, but they would not be on the panel.

Farm groups have been lobbying legislators for several years to budget more money for training pesticide applicators.

“You kind of don’t need a bill, but if it’s something people want we support it,” Jesernig said. “The focus is on the front end. An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

A hearing on the original proposal Jan. 25 drew dozens of farmers and pesticide applicators. They told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee that they can’t wait four business days to spray for insects and plant diseases.

“Ag folks acted really quickly, and the legislators to their credit took note of it,” Jesernig said.

Farmers, along with some Republican legislators, also made the point that allowing pesticides to drift off target is illegal and fined by the state agriculture department.

The labor committee removed the four-day notification and monthly reports, and proposed creating a “modernizing” work group made up of public and private interests to develop a notification system.

The budget committee held a hearing on the bill Monday. Heather Hansen, executive director of the Washington Friends of Farmers and Forests, criticized the labor committee’s bill for assuming pesticide applicators regularly break the law and that the agriculture department can’t stop it.

“We support a work group, but let’s start with an open-minded, even-handed work group that can look at ways to prevent drift from happening in the first place,” she said.

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