Last Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened a 30-day public comment period on the controversial strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.
The move comes in response to a year-old request from the environmental law group Earthjustice, along with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Both asked the EPA to re-consider its 2007 approval of methyl iodide, which is used to fumigate soil before planting.
While farmers in other states have had access to methyl iodide since 2007, California has its own review process. In late December, the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation approved methyl iodide, calling it “the most evaluated pesticide in the department's history."
Methyl iodide is intended to replace methyl bromide, which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol because it damages the ozone layer. California’s strawberry growers, who would be the state’s primary consumers of methyl iodide, say the chemical is critical to their $2 billion industry.
But scientists who advised the Department of Pesticide Regulation on its decision say methyl iodide is too toxic for agricultural use. They believe the chemical will put farm workers and people who live near strawberry fields at risk for cancer, miscarriage, and, possibly, brain damage. When the department approved methyl iodide, it set maximum exposure levels 120 times higher than what the agency’s staff scientists advised.
The EPA says it will accept public comments on methyl iodide through April 30th, 2011. At the end of that period, the agency will evaluate Earthjustice’s request to see whether it or any of the other comments warrant further action.
Meanwhile, several figures who played key roles in the methyl iodide decision and dispute have left the agency.
Last week, Mary-Ann Warmerdam, head of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, left her post to take a job at Clorox. Warmerdam was appointed to the department by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. Gov. Jerry Brown has not announced her replacement.
Warmerdam’s resignation followed the departures of two staff scientists at the department, both of whom criticized the agency’s approval of methyl iodide.
Lori Lim and Ruby Reed were staff toxicologists at the Department of Pesticide Regulation whose names appeared in a series of emails obtained by KQED-QUEST in response to a Public Records Act request. In the emails, Lim and Reed indicated they had not been consulted and “had to read between the lines” to try and figure out how the final exposure levels had been reached. They also said department heads had not included cancer risk in their decision.
Now, both scientists have left the agency, according to Lea Brooks, spokeswoman for the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Reed retired in December and Lim now works for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
Whether the EPA’s opening of the public comment period on methyl iodide signals a change in thinking about the pesticide or is simply a formality depends on who you ask.
“Our hope is that EPA will take this process seriously and will conclude that the prior administration's decision to register methyl iodide was misguided,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice.
In a written statement, Jeff Tweedy, head of business development for Arysta LifeScience, which manufactures methyl iodide, played down the announcement.
“To be clear,” he wrote, “the public comment period is not a reopening of the Federal registration of methyl iodide for review.”
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice (representing several environmental and farm-worker advocacy groups) against the Department of Pesticide Regulation and Arysta LifeScience is pending. You can read the petition here [PDF].
California Watch contributor Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED's QUEST, where she covers science and environmental issues facing Northern California. This post also appears on KQED's News Fix blog.