Pesticide fines

Washington regulators say the state's fines for mishandling pesticides are too low.

Penalties for mishandling pesticides are too low to deter violations, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The department will look into increasing the fines and suspensions it hands out for off-target applications and other infractions, the department announced Dec. 31 in the state register.

State law limits the fine for a pesticide infraction to $7,500. Legislators would have to increase the cap. On its own, however, the department could change how it calculates penalties, resulting in more fines at or close to the maximum.

“Adjustments to the rules could provide WSDA with more latitude in how and when that maximum penalty is imposed,” department spokesman Hector Castro said in an email.

Legislators set the maximum fine in 1989, raising it from $1,500.

The department last levied a $7,500 fine in 2017. Two farm employees put in a trash bin what they thought were spent pesticide casings used to fumigate a building. The casings gave off pesticides after being picked up by a garbage truck.

The incident exposed 11 men to poisonous gas, according to the department.

The biggest fine in 2019 was $5,200. The department levied it against a company for violating worker protection standards. The department investigated after three workers were exposed to chemicals.

The department finalized 21 penalties in 2019, including fines against home exterminators. In six cases, pesticides from an agricultural application did or threatened to come into contact with people, according to department records. Farm groups say such cases are rare, considering there are hundreds of thousands of applications in a year.

The department does not have a specific proposal on changing how it figures penalties.

“Our next step will be to hold discussions with those in the agriculture community involved or affected by pesticide application rules, including pesticide applicators, farm operators, and advocates for farm workers,” Castro said.

The department’s current penalties are heavily based on a pesticide applicator’s record over the past three years.

According to the department’s guidelines, the typical punishment for a fourth violation in three years would be a $4,250 fine and 70-day license suspension, providing the latest infraction could have hurt people or the environment.

The department can adjust the punishment up or down depending on the circumstances, but the current formula’s stress on prior violations limits its ability to assess the maximum penalty, according to the department.

Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said he didn’t think penalties were too low. The department should work with applicators to imprint into the field a “professional mindset,” he said.

“Do we always have to be a heavy-handed regulatory agency?” said Dent, a former crop duster. “How about helping us do something right?”

Dent co-chairs a new pesticide safety committee created by the Legislature. The panel is just beginning to meet. The agriculture department should wait for its recommendations, Dent said.

“If the department wants to change penalties, they should run it through the committee,” he said. “We put something together with great thought and included everybody. Let’s use it.”

The committee’s other co-chair, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, said the department should move ahead with considering changes in how it figures penalties.

She noted that the agriculture department has a representative on the committee and that the regulations guiding fines were last revised in 1999.

“I think it’s fair, 20 years in, for them to take a look and review,” she said.

Saldaña said she doesn’t have a position yet on whether fines are too low or whether maximum should be raised. “What we’re looking for is behavior change,” she said. “I’m not into penalizing.”

Ashley Chesser, communications and development director for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, said the current maximum fine is too low if people in the community are harmed.

{p class=”p1”}”Increasing fines will be a deterrent and will help match the true risk with deciding to use chemical pesticides,” she said in an email.

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