Groups Challenge EPA’s move to gut pesticide spraying safeguards

Two million farmworkers are now more vulnerable to pesticide poisoning


Erin Fitzgerald, Earthjustice

Ayleen Lopez, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

Grayson Morley, Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc.

BA Snyder, Veritas Group for Farmworker Justice

Last week, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice, on behalf of a coalition of farmworker advocacy and community health groups, filed a series of legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) weakening of safeguards that prevent farmworkers and rural residents from being accidentally sprayed with pesticides. EPA gutted the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ), which is a key provision of the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The coalition is comprised of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, CATA — The Farmworkers Support Committee, Farmworker Association of Florida, Migrant Clinicians Network, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos, United Farm Workers, United Farm Workers Foundation, Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc., and Rural Coalition. The New York Attorney General’s office is leading a coalition of five states who are also challenging these rollbacks.

The “Application Exclusion Zone” or AEZ is the area surrounding the pesticide application that must be free of all people other than the trained pesticide applicators. The larger and better defined the AEZ, the safer the area. AEZ is critical for schools and residential areas that are right next to agricultural fields, as well as for farmworkers and their families, who live and work on or near agricultural facilities.

The rollback makes the following changes:

  • The prior rule provided protection to anyone within the AEZ, but the new rule limits protection to only those within the boundary of the agricultural establishment. Under this provision, a pesticide handler does not have to stop application if someone is within 100 feet of the application, but not on the property. But drift does not stop at the property line. Schools, bus stops, and hospitals that are located near agriculture operations can get covered in dangerous pesticide drift and people can get acute poisoning. This rollback leaves communities surrounding agriculture fields at increased risk of harm.
  • The prior rule required that no one other than trained and equipped pesticide handlers enter the AEZ boundaries during application. The new rule allows pesticide handlers to continue application if a non-employee is within the AEZ on the agricultural establishment is subject to an easement, meaning they have a right to be on the property. This change too increases the risk of pesticide exposure.
  • The new rule shrinks the AEZ from 100 feet to 25 feet for certain ground applications of pesticides sprayed from above 12 inches, including pesticide applications that drift beyond 25 feet.

“The EPA’s latest rollback is a despicable attack on farmworkers and rural communities. In yet another handout to industry, the EPA delivered a blow to the health and safety of farmworkers by weakening protections that prevent unnecessary and unsafe exposure to pesticides,” said Carrie Apfel, a staff attorney in Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming Program. “Exposure to pesticides have a range of negative health impacts, such as respiratory distress. Amid a respiratory pandemic, it’s unconscionable that an agency tasked with protecting public health would instead choose to seriously endanger vulnerable, yet essential, workers and communities.”

“EPA is illegally revising the rules that farmworkers need to stay safe,” said Iris Figueroa, senior staff attorney at Farmworker Justice. “Farmworkers and their families need protections to prevent unnecessary exposure to and injury from pesticides. A safe workplace is a right and not a privilege.”

Every year, approximately 20,000 agricultural workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or as many as 300,000, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — suffer pesticide poisoning. The immediate aftermath of acute pesticide poisoning can result in rashes, vomiting, and even death. In the long-term, pesticide exposure has been associated with increased risk of cancers, infertility, neurological disorders, and respiratory conditions.

During aerial applications, up to 40% of the pesticide can be lost to drift, traveling long distances from the target area. Some pesticides will persist in the environment long after the application ends, contaminating air and water. The burden of this contamination disproportionately falls on rural communities. The enormity of these health harms and advocacy by farmworkers from across the country compelled the federal government to protect farmworkers and rural communities with the implementation of the AEZ. Now, the EPA is unraveling those protections in favor of big business. The rule is set to take effect on December 29, 2020. The coalition has filed an emergency motion to stay in order to prevent the rule from taking effect and that hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday, December 23 at 5:00 PM.

Quotes from the clients:

“The EPA knows farmworkers and their families are at risk of dangerous pesticide exposure, day in and day out. Yet it refuses to provide life-saving protections for the workers who handle the most toxic pesticides,” said Richard Witt, executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. “This is outrageous and immoral.”

“Farmworker women and children are adversely affected by pesticide exposure,” said Mily Trevino-Sauceda, Executive Director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “It’s time for the EPA to step up and do the right thing to ensure the health and safety of farmworker women and their families. We will not stand by as our communities are poisoned — we demand justice.”

“The weakened AEZ rule under the Worker Protection Standard shows us how easy it is for our government to disregard farmworkers’ health and safety,” said Jessica Culley, general coordinator of the CATA — The Farmworkers Support Committee. “Farmworkers deserve the right to a safe workplace and to change the rule to make it less protective and not more is a great injustice and a disservice to the hard fought protections already secured.”

“Farmworkers waited so long for the implementation of these key provisions of the Worker Protection Standard to be implemented. Having a protective aerial exclusion zone is an important way to reduce exposure to dangerous toxics,” said Retyna Lopez, Executive Director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos. “Farmworkers deserve to live long and healthy lives. We must not allow this critical protection to be taken away.”

“It is unconscionable that the men and women who harvest our food will continue to remain in harm’s way,” said Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers. “We will not rest while farmworkers and their families are forced to worry about the myriad of ways that exposure to pesticides could impact their lives. We will continue to fight for justice to ensure that this harmful revision is prevented from taking place.”

“Sadly, the EPA continues to endanger farmworkers and vulnerable communities by putting them at risk to accidental exposure to harmful chemicals and a ‘toxic’ waste of taxpayer money in fighting the ban in the courts,” said Jeannie Economos from the Farmworker Association of Florida. “The Agency, in addition to dropping the revised rule, should create a fund for addressing harmful health effects experienced by farmworkers and their children from pesticide exposure over these last four years.” 

“Farmworkers and their children deserve protection from pesticide exposure. It’s that simple. Yet the very agency tasked with protecting workers, the very agency that issued rules to minimize exposure, is ignoring the facts and taking an enormous step backwards. Their actions will harm those who put food on our tables,” said Amy Liebman, Director of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN). “We hope that the courts swiftly rebuke the latest affront to rural communities and prevent the revised rule from taking effect.”

“For far too long, producers, farmworkers, tribal and rural people of the land have been left in harm’s way for the benefit of industry while the EPA has failed our communities time and again,” said Lorette Picciano, Executive Director of The Rural Coalition. “The courts need to immediately reinstate the stronger provisions of the Worker Protection Standard and we will continue to fight to make sure that our communities are protected and afforded the rights they deserve.”

Legal Documents:

Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief filed in the South District of New York

Proposed Order to Show Cause for Emergency Relief

Memo in Support of Proposed Order

Additional Resources

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