Ventura County politician Steve Bennett wanted answers.
He and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors looked to Henry Gonzales to explain why the California Department of Pesticide Regulation had allowed strawberry farmers surrounding a local high school to use a potentially cancer-causing pesticide at unusually high levels.
So Gonzales, the department’s man on the ground in Ventura, put together a 44-slide PowerPoint presentation. He then emailed it to department leaders in Sacramento for feedback ahead of the March hearing.
The version Gonzales got back was heavily edited. Much of the information relevant to public concerns had been cut.
Gone were detailed explanations of 1,3-Dichloropropene’s health risks and precise figures about how much of it was used around Rio Mesa High School:
In their place: slides that shifted the focus to local land-use decisions:
A department spokeswoman has said officials in Sacramento were trying to make the presentation simple and to the point, but the editing fits a pattern. Since outcry began in Ventura County, Director Brian Leahy and his team have responded to the community’s questions with statements that contradict the findings of their own scientists and exaggerate their own policies.
The defense of 1,3-D comes at a crucial moment for strawberry growers. Their favorite pesticide has been banned for depleting the ozone layer, fueling worries that we’ll soon see the death of the strawberry. But growers have begun to rely more and more on other potentially dangerous fumigants, such as 1,3-D.
As those pesticides move into the spotlight, the department’s response in Ventura County shows how the officials in charge of protecting the public in the strawberry’s home state often fail to talk candidly about the chemicals’ health risks.
“They seem to be not just unwilling to answer specific questions, but there’s no question they try not to release information that they think will lead to controversy,” Bennett said.
After conferring with the county’s CEO, Gonzales ended up discarding many of the department’s changes. But he did include a line, central to the department’s defense, that’s factually incorrect. (It also has a grammar problem.)
“DPR scientists allow the chemical to be used, but does not want to see high concentrations repeatedly over a 70 year period,” the slide reads.
In fact, the department’s scientists don’t decide whether a chemical can be used. That job falls to politically appointed managers, who typically are not scientists. In the case of 1,3-D, these managers have ignored the scientists’ analyses, including the opinion that high concentrations in the short term – not 70 years – could be problematic.
“That’s just playing games with words,” said Jay Schreider, a retired staff scientist.
The community concern in Ventura County followed our investigation showing that state officials had effectively gutted regulation of 1,3-D, one of the most popular and toxic pesticides used in California agriculture.
By carving out a loophole for Dow AgroSciences and growers, the department allowed heavy amounts of the pesticide to be used near schools, homes and businesses in Ventura County and across the state. In all, the investigation found, more than 100 communities were put at greater risk of cancer.
Following Gonzales’ presentation, the supervisors requested that Leahy visit in person to answer questions. He did so this summer. The gist of his June 16 presentation: Don’t worry, everything’s fine.
In making that case, Leahy repeated a dubious statement that’s been at the heart of the department’s message, from its public statements to its private PowerPoint edits.
“The kids weren’t at risk here.”
This statement isn’t true, according to the toxicologist who led the department’s study of 1,3-D’s risks.
“He should not say that. While he may believe it, he has no support for the zero risk comment other than from Dow,” said Joseph Frank, who’s now retired from the department. “He is giving misleading statements to individuals who are being exposed, and whether it’s politically difficult or not, individuals should hear the truth.”
Frank’s objections aren’t new. In 2009, the department’s internal scientists analyzed the 1,3-D loophole and came to the same conclusion.
The other time the scientists analyzed the system, in 2001, they came to a similar conclusion. They also took issue with the basic science, as they would again in 2009.
Schreider called Leahy’s statement “ridiculous.”
“I’d go ballistic if I saw someone putting that out if I was still at the department,” Schreider said.
All 1,3-D use comes with some risk. It may be a small risk. Or it may be a risk they feel is worth taking considering the economic benefits of the pesticide. But it is a risk.
Before the loophole, the state accepted a risk of one potential cancer case per 100,000 people for 1,3-D use. So even if the department hadn’t created the loophole, the high school students and their teachers still would’ve been put at some cancer risk.
Leahy declined to talk to me about the June hearing. Through a spokeswoman, he stood by the comments.
When pressed on risk at the hearing, he eventually changed the subject to what an important tool pesticides were for the food supply. “Hunger is not very nice,” he said.
He then got prodded by an adviser to stop talking. “Ooh! I’m getting the message,” he said.
Here’s the thing: The state ended up allowing Dow and growers to use far more 1,3-D than they were supposed to through the loophole. So the rules that the scientists already disagreed with ended up getting broken. The department was effectively letting growers use as much 1,3-D as they wanted, despite the possible health concerns.
The department has started calling these exceptions “waivers.”
And that takes us to Leahy’s next statement from the June meeting.
“The department never violated its own system because waivers were part of that system.”
This is a tortured interpretation of the department’s policy.
The policy doesn’t spell out a waiver system or how the department would decide to grant a waiver. But it does contain one line that opened the door for even heavier 1,3-D use.
Understanding it requires a little bit of history.
In 1990, the state yanked 1,3-D from the market after discovering how much lingered in the air after being used. One test measured 800 times the acceptable amount at a school in Merced.
The state eventually allowed it back on the market in 1995 but needed a way to put hard caps on the amount that could be used in each community across the state.
The state’s rules were straightforward: Growers in each “township” – 6-mile-by-6-mile squares – could use no more than 90,250 pounds of 1,3-D a year, combined. This would keep the cancer risk at a level department leaders found acceptable.
That’s when one of the world’s largest pesticide makers, Dow AgroSciences, made its move. Just two years after it finalized this system, Dow let the department know it wanted out. Growers were losing another popular pesticide, methyl bromide, because of the environmental damage it caused. Growers wanted to be able to use more 1,3-D.
Dow suggested a short-term plan: Growers in each township would be able to use up to double the amount of 1,3-D a year than the state’s original health limits, if they hadn’t used up all of their limit in previous years. It worked kind of like cellphone rollover minutes.
The 2002 memo that adopted the Dow plan explicitly states the limits.
Growers can’t use more than 90,250 a year unless they have a bank of unused pesticides from previous years to draw from. Even when they qualify, growers can’t use more than 180,500 pounds a year.
Here’s the relevant passage from the document:
These may sound a lot like waivers. But they aren’t the waivers that Leahy is talking about.
Just a year into this loophole system, the department began allowing Dow and growers to ignore the limits spelled out above.
In 11 communities across the state, the department let Dow and growers keep going above the 90,250-pound limit even after they had used up their bank. Or, to extend the cellphone metaphor, they got to keep going even after they’d used up all of their rollover minutes.
The department also allowed Dow and growers to go well above the 180,500-pound cap for any single year.
These charts show how both rules got ignored in Rio Mesa’s community:
Department spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said when Leahy said the waivers were part of the system, he was referring to one line in the policy that reads: “Additional adjustments may be made to township allocations on a specific basis in the future.”
A line like that could be employed to ignore every other detail in the memo. And in many ways, it was. Internal records show that the state approved every request but one.
The policy also states that the entire system is supposed to be a short-term fix. It’s now going on its 14th year.
Now, take Leahy’s comments in context. They came right after he’d kicked off his presentation with a promise.
“I want to make a real commitment that we will improve communications,” he said. “You know communicating science is never easy. Scientists are not the most smooth-tongued folks who I ever met in my life.”
By the end, most of the supervisors seemed convinced, framing the issue as one of communication and not health risk.
Still, in response to one of Bennett’s questions, Leahy did find at least one moment of true candor in describing the waiver system.
“It was always a gift we gave the growers.”
Bernice Yeung contributed to this story. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.