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Sonoma County parents, farmers lobby state over pesticide use near schools

Lobbying groups have been making last-?minute pitches to an obscure state agency on an issue that has ramifications throughout the state and particularly in Sonoma County: To what length should farmers go to protect schoolchildren from sprayed pesticides?

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed a rule that would ban pesticide applications within a quarter-mile of schools and day care centers on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Comments are due today, and the department has received about 500 from various groups, said spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe.

DPR Director Brian Leahy has said the proposal “builds in additional layers of protection for students and school staff that are located in agricultural areas” as well as ensures better communication.

Parents and anti-pesticide advocates tend to believe the proposal should crack down harder on spraying. Ag groups that include grape growers fear the regulation is overreach, not supported by science.

A study by the state Department of Public Health found 36 percent of 2,511 California schools surveyed in agricultural zones in 2010 had 144 “pesticides of public health concern” sprayed within a quarter-mile. It did not determine whether children were actually exposed to such pesticides. The National Pesticide Information Center contends that infants and children are more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides than adults, and that parents should take steps to minimize their child’s exposure to them.

Spraying by aircraft, sprinklers, air-blast and all fumigant applications would be covered under the proposed rule. It also would prohibit most dust and powder pesticide applications including sulfur, which is a popular product used generously on Sonoma County farms to combat diseases such as powdery mildew on grapevines. A natural product, sulfur is allowable in organic farming.

In 2014, out of the 2.2 million pounds of pesticides used in Sonoma County, 1.4 million pounds were sulfur, according to the department’s database.

The other main pesticides used in Sonoma County include those that come from petroleum (154,542 pounds), mineral oil (115,625 pounds) and various glyphosphates (94,152 pounds), an herbicide category that includes the weed killer known as Roundup, deemed safe by the EPA if used according to directions but criticized by some health groups.

Some counties in California have various requirements that schools be notified of pesticide applications nearby, but Sonoma County does not, said Agriculture Commissioner Tony Lineager.

“Sonoma County growers who farm near schools for the most part have already developed a relationship with the schools,” Lineager said. “While this regulation may help, it’s something in a lot of ways we were already doing.”

And that’s what Mark Houser has been doing.

Houser, vineyard manager at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards and Alexander Valley Vineyards, has the usual litany of concerns as he manages 300 acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay and other grapes - cold, heat, rain, drought, mildew, bugs, weeds. But foremost on his mind is that his property surrounds Alexander Valley School, the K-6 campus on Highway 128.

It affects when and where his workers mow or burn a pile of vines. He pays special attention to the chemicals and has an agreement with the school that they will be only applied at night or on the weekends. He always provides 48 hours’ notice.

But elsewhere in the county, there has been controversy. In 2013, Sebastopol parents complained when vintner Paul Hobbs converted an apple orchard into a vineyard, alleging that dust from uprooted trees contained toxic chemicals that could harm students at nearby Apple Blossom and Orchard View schools.

With the public outcry, Twin Hills School District entered into an agreement with Hobbs that the winemaker would notify the district 24 hours prior to any application of products in the vineyard, applications would be done between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. and the winery would follow state pesticide regulations.

Barbara Bickford, superintendent of Twin Hills School District, said since the memo of understanding was signed that the district has not been notified of spraying in a year and a half. She believes there has been no spraying during the school day.

But the concern still lingers for some residents.

“They’re definitely raw feelings,” said Hilary Avalon of Sebastopol, who has a child that attended Orchard View and is a member of the Watertrough Children’s Alliance advocacy group.

Her biggest issue is the lack of enforcement, which the state’s proposed regulation would resolve.

Proponents like Avalon are arguing that the state department has to go much further, making it a mile radius to cover the possibility of drift and prohibiting spraying during a longer time period, said Mark Weller, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform.

They note the European Union has taken a much tougher stance on pesticides, such as exploring banning Roundup altogether.

“Above all, in a caring society, we should put the health of children first,” Weller said.

Farming groups, though, contend the proposal is overreach that is not backed up by available science. “What’s at stake here is there isn’t any credible information that these products are unsafe to use,” said John Auguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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