OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers have approved a new committee with a wide-ranging mandate to review how farms spray pesticides and to investigate cases of pesticide exposure.
Made up of legislators, department directors and university experts, the committee's first job will be to reconcile various ways state agencies track pesticide exposure to calculate how often it actually happens. Different agencies have different numbers.
If everyone agrees on the same facts, agriculture will look good, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, predicted Tuesday.
"I think it will be great public relations to educate the public about pesticide applications," said Dent, a former crop duster. "I see this as a win for agriculture."
The Senate on Monday voted 45-2 to send to the governor Senate Bill 5550 authorizing the pesticide safety committee. The Senate had previously passed the measure, and Monday's vote was to accept minor changes made by the House. The House passed the bill unanimously.
The bill stems from a proposal last year by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, to require farms give four-day notice before spraying and to file monthly reports. The proposal had the support of labor and environmental groups. Farmers testified that the proposal was unrealistic and that pesticide drift is rare and illegal.
Instead of embracing or burying the proposal, lawmakers formed a bipartisan work group co-chaired by Saldaña and Dent. From those meetings came recommendations to train workers to apply and handle pesticides, and to form the high-level pesticide safety committee.
An advisory group that includes farmworkers, health officials and pesticide applicators will provide expertise to the committee.
Saldaña said she hoped the committee will benefit rural residents and "make sure we have a healthy industry providing food and products for our state and really for the whole globe."
Farm groups supported the legislation.
According to the bill, the committee will first look into turning records compiled by the agriculture department, health department, Department of Labor & Industries and Washington Poison Center into one database.
The bipartisan work group found it hard to determine how often pesticides drift off target.
"All the information the agencies gave us was different," Dent said. "It was never the same."
The House budget proposal has $500,000 for the agriculture department to train more farmworkers on pesticide safety. The House and Senate are negotiating a final budget. The session ends Sunday.
The pesticide safety committee's other duties will include:
• Investigating why farmworkers wouldn't report pesticide exposure.
• Looking at buying out old spray equipment.
• Developing a program to educate farmworkers about leaving fields that are being sprayed.
• Minimizing risks of pesticide exposure to neighbors.
• Labeling pesticides in other languages besides English
The committee will make annual reports to the Legislature, beginning May 1, 2020.