Spray-Free Santa Cruz?

news-sprayPesticide ban targets LBAM sprays, but may not fall within city jurisdiction
An ordinance banning the bulk application of pesticides within City of Santa Cruz boundaries is inching closer to a vote, sparking debate over the rights of local governments and private landowners when fighting state chemical campaigns.

Motivated by the state’s program to eradicate the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), local activists met with city council members last week to revise the proposed ordinance. Written by a citizens’ group called People Against Chemical Trespass (PACT), the rule could prevent aerial spraying of pheromone as well as the application of ground sprays in neighborhoods and yards. 

“The state shouldn’t be allowed to come into our communities, our backyards and our organic gardens and spray chemicals,” says PACT cofounder Ruth Valdez.

In February, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) released an environmental impact report (EIR) on the LBAM project, which plans to use twist ties—wire strands much like those used to close plastic bags, except they release chemicals—for local treatments. Sterile moths may also be released to out-compete wild moths for mates.

“The sterile release project is the preferred alternative identified in the EIR,” says Steve Lyle, a CDFA spokesperson. “CDFA is not currently considering aerial applications of pheromone.”

news2_childinmaskAerial sprays are not the preferred route, but the EIR does not rule out the possibility. “[The state] may still use aerial spraying in rural areas, and there is nothing to keep them from changing their mind about spraying in the city,” says Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin. Ground-based applications are also considered safe, including trucks that spray along city streets and hoses that project chemicals into the air, dousing surrounding plants and trees.

The city attorney is now reviewing the environmental impact report, and preparing a response. “We are exploring all our options,” says Rotkin. Last year the city filed a suit against CDFA and postponed LBAM spraying.

Yet Rotkin is firmly against a citywide pesticide ban. “It’s simply not enforceable,” he says. “We might slow down the pesticide applications, but we would get sued immediately. There is 100 years of law on this question, and we would lose.”

Chemical companies might even sue for lost revenue, and Rotkin says this is a poor use of city money—especially for an ordinance that many see as symbolic.

Valdez sympathizes with the city’s difficult position, but says the ordinance is designed to invoke an outcome, not just send a message. “The rule mirrors resolutions passed by 120 other cities,” she says. “These successfully stopped uranium and coal mining, and the dumping of toxic hog waste.” Many of these ordinances have gone 10 years without suit, according to the Chambersburg, PA-based Community Environmental Defense Fund, which advised PACT on ordinance language.

The full list of 120 city names has not been released, but Rotkin says these examples likely relied on zoning laws, which don’t apply to pesticide campaigns. For example, when Santa Cruz faced drilling off the coast in the ’80s, a zoning ordinance prevented accompanying land-based construction. The city could similarly pass a zoning law preventing pesticide manufacturers from building factories, but state law preempts when it comes to chemical transport and applications.

Even the city’s most famous symbolic measure—the 1998 Nuclear Free ordinance—could be trumped by the state. Highways and train lines are not governed by the city, and can ship nuclear materials. State research institutions, like public universities, can similarly conduct nuclear research without being fined.

“There is a lot of other stuff the state does to us that we would like to have control over, but we don’t,” says Rotkin.

PACT remains hopeful that the mayor will be more optimistic when he sees the revised language. “There may be a solution,” says Valdez. “As Santa Cruz is a charter city, it has a legal responsibility to guard the health and safety of residents. This is a written obligation, and we may be able to base the ordinance on this.” The possibility of holding the state libel for local illnesses caused by the sprays or twist ties is also a possibility.

If the revised language is well received, the ordinance may come before the city council in April. If voted down, a ballot initiative is another option. With about 3,000 signatures, a measure banning pesticides could be placed on the November ballots. “Everyone agrees this would likely pass in a town like Santa Cruz,” says Valdez, who emphasizes the ordinance will allow residents to apply consumer-grade pesticides to their home gardens.

Rotkin says he appreciates the effort, and supports action against the spraying—even if not in the form of a pesticide ban. “I don’t need to be persuaded that we shouldn’t be spraying,” he says. “Past sprays haven’t worked, and the chemicals have not been proven safe.”

Of 274 prior CDFA sprays, only the Asian Gypsy Moth was successfully eradicated. “They launched aerial sprays over the city in the ’70s for the Mediterranean Fruit Fly,” says Rotkin. “They told you it was safe, and not to worry about breathing it, but cover your car because it strips the paint.” The fruit fly population remains large despite the sprays.

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