EPA reportedly ‘distorted’ meeting notes and workers could be more vulnerable to pesticide exposure

"This is simply not correct."

A helicopter sprays insecticide on a field outside of El Centro, California in the Imperial Valley on Wednesday, February 11, 2015. The Imperial Valley has some of the poorest air quality in California due to border traffic, farming and other industries. (CREDIT: Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)
A helicopter sprays insecticide on a field outside of El Centro, California in the Imperial Valley on Wednesday, February 11, 2015. The Imperial Valley has some of the poorest air quality in California due to border traffic, farming and other industries. (CREDIT: Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)

In November 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met with several groups representing farmworkers to talk about three provisions of the worker protection rules to make farming safer. Organizers walked away feeling like there was some consensus between the groups, even though there was more work to be done on these issues.

But when the EPA made their two-day meeting notes public and summarized its notes to Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office a month later, organizers noticed major discrepancies and inaccuracies between their notes and those made by the agency.

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In an early March letter addressed to the federal agency, organizers expressed concern that the agency had provided not only a “distorted account” of the meeting, but may have used their group’s participation “to validate or justify Agency actions which are completing at odds with both the EPA’s mission and our own goals of protecting the workers who grow our food, and the communities that surround them, from the harmful effects of pesticides.”

The concerns arose from the two-day November 1 and 2, 2017 meeting when EPA officials met with members of the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee (PPDC) — comprised of farmworker and health organizations to discuss the Agricultural Worker Protection Final Rule. At the meeting, both sides discussed enforcing a minimum age of workers allowed to handle pesticides; requiring agricultural employers to provide pesticide application information and safety data sheets to a designated representative; and requirements to limit pesticide exposure for agricultural employers to keep workers and other people out of areas known as application exclusion zone (or “AEZ”).

Concerns have persisted since the EPA’s letter to Udall’s office, which appeared to “conflate” some feedback from PPDC members that actually came from those in the agency. Udall has an oversight role over EPA rulemaking.

The EPA’s assertions to Udall about the minimum age provisions were “not correct,” PPDC stakeholders wrote, explaining that the letter made it seem like the PPDC stakeholders agreed that the “family exemption” provision — in which immediate family are exempt from many worker protection standard requirements —  was “not flexible enough to accommodate family-owned and operated businesses of commercial applicators.” In a follow-up email sent from the agency to Udall’s office in January, it clarified that the input was not from PPDC members but rather from comments received as part of the Regulatory Reform docket.

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On the issue of a designated representative provision, the PPDC criticized the EPA for telling Udall that “there was not agreement on a practical way to alleviate stakeholder concerns regarding who could qualify to be a designated representative and how the information could be used.”

“This is simply not correct,” the PPDC letter signers wrote, explaining that they agreed on addressing the concerns through the establishment of a short-term workgroup on the issue.

PPDC stakeholders had fewer issues on the discussion of the AEZ, but they said the EPA’s letter to Udall “fails to mention” the “overwhelming support for the provision and that the next step was to issue additional guidance.”

The PPDC members further wrote that they had expressed “serious concerns” about the EPA’s decision to overturn its proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, “[h]owever, this input is completely omitted from your letter [to Udall].” Last August, the agency rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos, a widely-used insecticide that has been linked to brain damage and other negative human health outcomes.

“We do not have an expectation that the EPA’s decisions will always correspond with our specific points of view, yet we do expect our views to be heard and we certainly do not expect them to be ignored or mischaracterized simply because they do not fit into a pre-determined political narrative,” the letter signers added.

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The alleged troubling mischaracterization of EPA’s public releases of its interaction of stakeholders may perhaps be forgiven if this was a one-off occurrence. However,  pesticides like chlorpyrifos are manufactured by Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical which donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. And under the leadership of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency has appeared to take on stances that break from mainstream scientific consensus. Recently, the EPA released guidelines that “promote a message of uncertainty about climate science and gloss over proposed cuts to key adaptation programs,” the Huffington Post reported.

Moving beyond the EPA and PPDC’s war of words, the inconsistency in characterization and feedback ultimately affect one group the most: the 2.5 million farmworkers in the country. The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimated that about half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Under this presidency, they may be afraid to seek medical help if they’re exposed to pesticides out of deportation fears.

“We have to acknowledge that what we know about pesticide poisonings relies on the farmworker actually reporting the issue either via their employer at their worksite,” Andrea Delgado, the legislative director of the health communities program at EarthJustice, told ThinkProgress. “Or they actually went to a doctor to get taken care of and that the medical provider actually knows how to identify the signs of pesticide poisoning.”

“Think about all the things that have to be aligned  — that someone has to feel empowered enough to say I know enough about my rights when it comes to pesticide exposure,” Delgado reasoned.