Did Fresno and Tulare counties violate a pesticide law? A new study suggests so

A Tulare mother said her youngest son has rashes all over his body and has trouble learning much because of hazardous pesticides used on farmland near their home.

And a newly released study may back up her claims, citing many California agricultural counties — including Fresno and Tulare — in violation of state law of granting growers permits to use toxic pesticides without properly evaluating safer alternatives.

The study, called “Governance on the Ground: Evaluating the Role of County Agricultural Commissioners in Reducing Toxic Pesticide Exposures,” was released Wednesday by a group of UCLA researchers.

The report found that none of the 24 agricultural counties included in the study were in compliance.

“My sons are being exposed to pesticides,” said Fidelia Morales, a Tulare mother of five who is also outreach coordinator for Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety. “During the spraying season is when we feel the effects.

“My youngest son is the one who is the most affected.”

The study’s researchers used documents obtained through a public records request. The pesticides in question include brain-harming chlorpyrifos and carcinogenic soil fumigants.

Meanwhile, Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Melissa Cregan disputed the study’s findings, saying they didn’t paint a realistic picture of the process, and that Fresno County isn’t violating state law.

“There is a system in place that requires pesticide users to consider feasible alternatives, and that system is being followed,” Cregan said. “(The researchers) didn’t ask us really what our processes were, they mostly just requested any written documents of when we discussed a feasible alternative — we are not required to document that, so we don’t.”

The researchers’ assumption is “simply not true,” Cregan added.

Tulare County outgoing Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Wright didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Various farmworker and environmental advocacy groups held a press conference Wednesday afternoon outside the Fresno County Hall of Records’ building. They spoke about the report’s findings, and urged the agricultural commissioners in each county to change their alleged practices.

In 2017, California placed greater restriction on the use of chlorpyrifos, according to the study. That same year, California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined other states in filing legal objections to the federal government’s rescinding the ban on the pesticide, the report says.

Angel Garcia, founder of the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety and community organizer for Californians for Pesticides Reform, said agricultural commissioners in Tulare and in Fresno County offered no evidence in 2017 they were following state legal requirements to evaluate safer alternatives to applications of chlorpyrifos.

“We are here to call on the new Fresno and Tulare county commissioners to not follow the previous legacy left by outgoing commissioners,” Garcia said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Take a stand and truly protect residents by following the law to evaluate safer alternatives before approving permits for restricted applications.”

Fresno County currently has anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 valid grower permits, Cregan said. When an evaluation for a feasible alternative is needed, she said, those discussions take place, along with inspections in the field, which is a priority, rather than building up paperwork.

Cregan said the current system is “abundantly cautious” to protect citizens and the environment, but she acknowledged accidents can still happen. “You can’t do anything with zero risks,” she said.

Morales believes agricultural commissioners are not doing what they should be doing to protect citizens.

“This is why I’m here, to urge the (Tulare) commissioner to do her job,” Morales said, “and stop granting permits without ensuring that restricted pesticides are used with safety because we are not going to allow these errors to happen.”