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California Bill To Reestablish Local Control of Pesticides

(Beyond Pesticides, July 21, 2008) Advocacy groups are encouraging California’s Senators to support Assemblywoman Fiona Ma’s bill (AB 977) that returns the ability to restrict pesticides to local jurisdictions. Currently, California and 40 other states have pesticide “preemption” laws that deny local authorities the right to pass pesticide restrictions that are more stringent than the state’s laws. Preemption laws are a result of intensive lobbying by the agrichemical industry, and groups in California and across the country believe the time has come to take back the democratic right for localities to adopt restrictions to protect environmental and public health. This authority enables local jurisdictions to respond to exposure scenarios that are not addressed by state law and address unique contamination or poisoning situations.

California’s preemption law, passed in 1984, was the first of its kind in the nation and explicitly states that no local government “may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, sale, transportation, or use of pesticides.” The state law nullified the first attempt at local pesticide regulation, which was a 1979 Mendocino County prohibition on aerial herbicide spraying that arose from an incident in which herbicide drifted almost three miles to school buses. The frustrations over the lack of local control mounted again recently regarding the state of California’s desire to spray for the light brown apple moth, prompting renewed interest in overturning the undemocratic preemption law.

Realizing that federal and state pesticide regulations are often not strong enough to protect public health and the environment, and do not take into account local environmental or health issues, many towns, cities, and counties have been passing non-toxic landscape care policies, and school integrated pest management (IPM) policies. With preemption laws in place, however, these policies can only extend as far as government-owned property, and do not restrict the use of toxic chemicals for homeowners.

In 1984 the California State Supreme Court decided in favor of Mendocino County and its local pesticide regulation, but the state of California, with pressure from the pesticide industry, avoided the consequences of this decision by simply changing the law. The only way to give back local democratic authority in such critical environmental and health matters is to overturn this law, and for other states to follow suit with their preemption laws.

The issue of federal preemption of local ordinances made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1991 that federal law (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, FIFRA) does not preempt local jurisdictions from restricting the use of pesticides (Wisconsin Public Intervenor v. Ralph Mortier). However, the ability of states to take away local authority was left in place. The pesticide lobby immediately formed a coalition, called The Coalition for Sensible Pesticide Policy, and developed model state legislation that restricts local municipalities from passing ordinances regarding the use or sale of pesticides. The Coalition lobbyists descended upon states across the country seeking and passing, in most cases, preemption legislation that was often identical to the coalition’s wording. Nearly a dozen states voted down the measure. Congress has toyed with the idea of restricting local jurisdictions’ authority in FIFRA since the 1980s, but industry lobbyists have always been beaten back.

TAKE ACTION: If you live in California, contact your Senators to voice your position on this bill. For more information, contact Pesticide Action Network North America or Californians for Pesticide Reform. If you live in another state with pesticide preemption laws, share this legislation with your representatives in your state legislature.


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