Liability, Health Questions Loom As Moth Spraying Set To Resume

Dozens of families were leaving their homes on the Monterey Peninsula Wednesday as planes prepared to resume showering the area with a chemical mist aimed at crippling a crop-destroying moth.

"We're not crazy environmental people, we're just concerned for the health of our kids and the other people in town," said Leah Beets, a Pacific Grove mother who planned to take her two children to her mother's home in Modesto, some 125 miles inland, rather than risk exposure.

"I'd rather err on the side of caution."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the spraying to continue after a Superior Court judge ruled last week that environmentalists failed to document the health risks associated with the campaign.

The area will be doused for four straight nights, starting Wednesday.

The light brown apple moth, a tiny Australian pest that attacks 250 plant species, was first spotted in California in March and has since spread to 12 counties, from Marin to Los Angeles.

The eradication program is centered on the Monterey Peninsula, home to
many organic farms, in part because agricultural authorities fear the moth could jump inland from there to San Joaquin Valley croplands and cause billions in losses.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is using a pesticide called CheckMate, which contains a synthetic pheromone that fouls up the moth's mating cycle.

But after communities along the scenic stretch of coastline were doused from the air last month, more than 100 residents filed complaints claiming they couldn't breathe and experienced shooting stomach pains.

An environmental group sued, claiming the state broke the law by not preparing an environmental impact report to ensure the chemical droplets were safe.

Anxiety over the spray's potential health hazards only mounted with confusion about its ingredients, with regulators saying the spray contained a potentially harmful inert ingredient, then reversing course and saying it did not.

As the spraying begins again, the legal fight continues.

Lawyers on both sides will be paying close attention to the pest eradication campaign, a case that in many ways mirrors the controversial strategy to fight the Mediterranean fly, which plagued California's suburban gardens and farm belt in the 1980s and 1990s.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown's decision in the 1980s to delay spraying malathion, a chemical capable of peeling paint on houses and cars, earned him harsh criticism from farmers.

When he eventually allowed the aerial assault to go forward, the decision was unpopular with voters.

A decade later, a second round of spraying prompted a Riverside County woman to sue the state, claiming the pesticide left her with aggravated asthma, itchy eyes and unable to breathe without an oxygen tank.

In 1997, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared her case moot, since agricultural authorities promised to stop aerial spraying for the Medfly.

But the justices never dismissed Dufresne's right to bring claims over her health concerns, Dufresne's attorney said.

"She was forced out of her home and there was no accommodation made to put her anywhere else," said her lawyer, Hannah Bentley.

"There may be people who have a similar situation in the moth spraying area right now."

California agricultural officials will likely face other legal battles, too.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to hire an environmental lawyer to challenge the state for failing to conduct an environmental review on the impact the pesticide will have on people and the environment.

"This is a 1950s approach to solving agricultural and public health issues," said Paul Schramski, state director for the nonprofit Pesticide Watch. "We need a solution for 2008."

Fighting pests from the air is never an easy political calculation, especially in California, where pesticide laws are among the nation's most stringent, authorities say.

Other states have faced similar quandaries.

In New York City, health officials use trucks that spray a ground-level pesticide mist to kill mosquitoes that could carry West Nile virus, said Edgar Butts, an environmental health officer with the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

And in Florida, where Tampa Bay residents filed more than 700 health complaints after widespread spraying of malathion to kill the Medfly, officials said they send up planes only when they have no other options.

"There's every attempt to try to deal with it in a manner that's going to have the least impact," said Michael Page, bureau chief of Florida's Bureau of Entymology and Pest Control in Tallahassee. "If it gets out of hand and aerial spraying must be conducted, it's kind of a last resort."

California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura says the CheckMate spray "is nontoxic to humans, plants, animals and insects."

In recent weeks, he ordered a panel of public health officials and pesticide experts to review the product's safety, and opened a 24-hotline to take health complaints.

Still, even families who are choosing to stay in town this week remain fearful of the potential hazards.

"We're going to be investing in rubber face masks," said Emily Tonkin, a Pacific Grove mother.

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