Attorney General Becerra Files Lawsuit to Stop Trump Administration from Weakening Critical Safeguards for Agricultural Workers

Friday, December 18, 2020
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Coalition Argues that EPA’s New Rule Puts Health of Families, Children in Agricultural Communities at Risk 

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined a coalition of five states in filing a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for illegally weakening protections for farmworkers, their families, and others from toxic pesticides. In the lawsuit, the coalition argues that the EPA violated federal law when it adopted regulations that allow pesticide spraying to continue even if farmworkers or other persons are within the area immediately surrounding the spraying equipment, if that area is outside the farm’s boundaries.   

“Day in and day out, agricultural workers are exposed to increased health risks as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Attorney General Becerra. “The Trump Administration’s decision to undercut existing public health protections for these workers is not only reprehensible – it's illegal. We're going to court to prove it.”

The agricultural sector ranks among the most hazardous industries nationally, with workers experiencing particularly high rates of injuries and illness. Exposure to harmful levels of pesticides causes adverse effects to farmworkers, pesticide handlers, and their families. Acute symptoms from overexposure to pesticides vary, and can range from mild skin irritation to more severe effects, including headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and impaired vision. Severe acute exposures can result in seizures, respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, and death. Chronic exposure may result in increased instances of cancer, including blood cancers, prostate cancer, and lung cancer, as well as respiratory and neurological effects, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, and Parkinson’s disease. Pesticides can also cause harm to the children of farmworkers; exposure is associated with increased birth defects, fetal defects, and delayed mental and behavior development.

In 2015, for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, the EPA updated and strengthened its Agricultural Worker Protection Standard regulations to better address the adverse effects of pesticides among agriculture workers, and other communities vulnerable to exposure. As a part of the 2015 regulation, the EPA established the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ), an up to 100-foot circular area around pesticide application equipment that, because of the inherent dangers of pesticides, must be free of all persons other than appropriately trained and equipped handlers during application. The regulation also required handlers to suspend a pesticide application if any person is within the AEZ – including if the AEZ extended beyond the boundaries of the farm on which conducting the application. However, on October 20, the EPA adopted a rule that weakened the protections afforded to farmworkers, their families, and others from pesticide exposure by substantially limiting the AEZ, allowing handlers to continue applying pesticides even when farmworkers or bystanders are present within AEZ – so long as these persons are located outside the farm’s boundaries.

In the lawsuit, the coalition charges that the EPA violated the law by:  

  • Departing from its prior recent position without adequate justification; 
  • Failing to justify the changes to the Application Exclusion Zone;  
  • Providing an explanation that is contrary to evidence; and 
  • Ignoring its obligation to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse effects of this policy change on minority and low-income populations.   

Attorney General Becerra has stood firm in the fight for protections for farmworkers and their families. Earlier this year, Attorney General Becerra filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a United Farm Workers challenge to a U.S. Department of Labor rule that will depress farmworker wages throughout the United States. Attorney General Becerra also joined a multistate coalition in urging the EPA to reconsider its proposal to roll back the 2015 Worker Protection Standards. In August 2019, Attorney General Becerra sued the EPA over its failure to regulate pesticides after the EPA refused to make a required safety finding for the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. After Attorney General Becerra filed a lawsuit in 2018 challenging the EPA’s decision to suspend critical safeguards for agricultural workers, the EPA backed down and announced that it would implement the safeguards protecting against exposure to pesticides.

Attorney General Becerra joins the New York, Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.

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