A proposed update to a federal worker protection rule on pesticide application could make it easier for farmers to protect their crops, but could also harm agricultural workers on neighboring land.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing changes to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard that would modify the pesticide application exclusion zone, or the area surrounding equipment during pesticide application, so that it is applicable and enforceable only on a farmer’s own property.
More than 125 entities, including labor organizations, environmental advocacy groups and religious organizations, submitted a joint comment to the EPA warning of the rollback’s negative effect.
“Farmworkers have one of the highest rates of chemical exposures among U.S. workers, and they suffer acute pesticide poisoning every year through occupational exposures and pesticide drift,” the groups said in a joint statement. “We are concerned that the EPA may weaken critical safeguards meant to protect agricultural workers, the public, and the environment.”
Complaints of pesticide drift in Indiana have been on the rise since 2008, despite a state law meant to restrict such drift.
Under current federal law, farmers must ensure that no one comes within at least 100 feet of pesticide application equipment during application by air, air blast, smaller than medium spray quality and as a fumigant, smoke mist or fog.
A farmer must stop spraying if anyone enters the exclusion zone even if they are off the farmer’s property, and cannot resume pesticide application until the zone is clear.
Under the new proposal, farmers and state regulators would no longer be responsible for ensuring that people in neighboring properties are clear of an application exclusion zone during spraying.
“Every effort to make the rule more sensible and practical for farmers while safeguarding workers is important,” said American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall. “EPA’s step today to assure that only those areas under a farmer’s control are enforceable is a common-sense clarification, among others designed to reflect on-the-ground farming practices.”
Director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture Bruce Kettler told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that the proposed change clarifies and simplifies worker protection rules.
“For example, since farmers cannot legally control the actions of bystanders not on their property, they were expected to enforce this rule, even though they did not own the property,” Kettler said in an email. “Anytime there is clarity around confusion in laws, it helps regulators be more effective.”
While farmers and state officials say the rule would help enforce existing regulations, organizations that represent agricultural workers said the rollback in worker protections will harm farmworkers and bystanders.
Current state and federal laws written to protect workers from pesticides are often violated, whether intentionally or not.
Federal law mandates that pesticide users must obey pesticide label directions under penalty of criminal prosecution.
Many pesticide labels direct users to not apply the product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift.
Since 2006, the state of Indiana has had a law on the books that should have prevented pesticide from drifting outside the bounds of a farmer’s application site.
The Indiana Pesticide Drift Rule banned pesticide users from applying a pesticide “in a manner that allows it to drift from the target site in sufficient quantity to cause harm to a nontarget site.” The rule specifies that “harm” includes documented deaths, illness and other detrimental effects.
If a farmer or other pesticide user is caught violating the rule, they could face a suspension or revocation of their license, permit, registration or certification. They could also be issued administrative fines.
Even with those rules in place, the Office of Indiana State Chemist, the state agency that oversees all pesticide regulations, reported that agricultural drift complaints have risen since 2008.
The annual 10-year average for off-target drift complaints for all pesticides is 110. In 2017 and 2018, the number of complaints more than doubled at 263 and 270, respectively.
The public has until January 30 to submit comments on the proposed rule change. You can submit your input at this site by entering the Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OPP-2017-0543 in the search bar.