Washington farmers turn out to protest pesticide bill

Whatcom County, Wash., berry grower Rob Dhaliwal talks in the hallway after testifying Jan. 25 before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee in Olympia. Dhaliwal and other farmers warned a bill to require informing the state days in advance of each pesticide application would harm agriculture.

OLYMPIA — Washington farmers pushed back Thursday against a proposal to require growers to give the state Health Department up to a seven-day notice every time they spray pesticides.

A delay in reacting to bug and disease outbreaks would devastate crops, farmers told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

“Mummy berry, botrytis fruit rot, powdery mildew, aphids, mites, spotted wing drosophila and other diseases and pests can get out of hand in much less time than this,” Whatcom County berry farmer Rob Dhaliwal said.

Senate Bill 6529, introduced by Seattle Democrat Rebecca Saldana, provoked a rare level of opposition from farm groups. Major commodity commissions and small organic farmers alike testified against the bill.

Asked by a senator to rate the bill’s threat to agriculture on a scale from one to 10, Eastern Washington wheat farmer Nicole Berg answered “10.”

The bill must pass the committee by Feb. 2 to stay alive for this session. Some senators said they doubted the legislation was ready to advance. Saldana conceded that there was strong opposition, but said she wanted to talk with farmers to refine her proposal between now and next year. “This is something I’d like to continue to work on,” she said.

Some farmers said they’d be happy to talk, but were also leery about where it would lead.

The bill’s premise, according to its preamble, is that pesticide applications are a “consistent source of pesticide exposure and pose significant risks to community members.”

Other provisions of the bill would require making public each month the type and amount of pesticide applied for each spraying. Farmers and pesticide applicators not filing the right information could be fined $7,500.

Farmers objected to having to reveal their management practices to competitors. They also said they were worried the information would be used against them in lawsuits.

“Pesticide drift events are already illegal and they are rare,” Dhaliwal said. “We’re not going to expose our employees to something we don’t want our kids around.”

Under the bill, farmers would have to notify the Health Department four business days before spraying, so weekends and holidays would extend the lag time. Health officials would then be obligated to give rural residents and schools within a quarter-mile a two-hour notice.

Saldana said she wanted to “empower those folks that are nearby farms to have the information from a public health perspective.”

“I’ll just say that’s my interest, making sure people have information, so they can make decisions,” she said.

Representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, Columbia Legal Services, Washington Environmental Council, Washington Education Association and Washington State PTA endorsed the bill at the hearing.

Farmers and pesticide applicators stressed they don’t know four or more days in advance whether the wind and rain will let them spray.

“Most often aerial applicators are Minutemen for growers,” said Gavin Morse, a Warden, Wash., applicator and president of the Association of Washington Aerial Applicators. “Wind and environmental conditions do not operate on a schedule.”

The state Department of Agriculture in 2017 issued seven fines in incidents that exposed people to pesticides from farms. In the worst case, which did not involve applying a pesticide, fumigant tablets that were improperly disposed of exposed 11 men, including farmworkers, a garbage truck driver and emergency responders, to poisonous gas.

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