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EPA reportedly ‘distorted’ meeting notes and workers could be more vulnerable to pesticide exposure

Friday, March 30th, 2018

In November 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met with several groups representing farmworkers to talk about three provisions of the worker protection rules to make farming safer. Organizers walked away feeling like there was some consensus between the groups, even though there was more work to be done on these issues.

But when the EPA made their two-day meeting notes public and summarized its notes to Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office a month later, organizers noticed major discrepancies and inaccuracies between their notes and those made by the agency.

In an early March letter addressed to the federal agency, organizers expressed concern that the agency had provided not only a “distorted account” of the meeting, but may have used their group’s participation “to validate or justify Agency actions which are completing at odds with both the EPA’s mission and our own goals of protecting the workers who grow our food, and the communities that surround them, from the harmful effects of pesticides.”

The concerns arose from the two-day November 1 and 2, 2017 meeting when EPA officials met with members of the Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee (PPDC) — comprised of farmworker and health organizations to discuss the Agricultural Worker Protection Final Rule. At the meeting, both sides discussed enforcing a minimum age of workers allowed to handle pesticides; requiring agricultural employers to provide pesticide application information and safety data sheets to a designated representative; and requirements to limit pesticide exposure for agricultural employers to keep workers and other people out of areas known as application exclusion zone (or “AEZ”).

Concerns have persisted since the EPA’s letter to Udall’s office, which appeared to “conflate” some feedback from PPDC members that actually came from those in the agency. Udall has an oversight role over EPA rulemaking.

The EPA’s assertions to Udall about the minimum age provisions were “not correct,” PPDC stakeholders wrote, explaining that the letter made it seem like the PPDC stakeholders agreed that the “family exemption” provision — in which immediate family are exempt from many worker protection standard requirements —  was “not flexible enough to accommodate family-owned and operated businesses of commercial applicators.” In a follow-up email sent from the agency to Udall’s office in January, it clarified that the input was not from PPDC members but rather from comments received as part of the Regulatory Reform docket.

On the issue of a designated representative provision, the PPDC criticized the EPA for telling Udall that “there was not agreement on a practical way to alleviate stakeholder concerns regarding who could qualify to be a designated representative and how the information could be used.”

“This is simply not correct,” the PPDC letter signers wrote, explaining that they agreed on addressing the concerns through the establishment of a short-term workgroup on the issue.

PPDC stakeholders had fewer issues on the discussion of the AEZ, but they said the EPA’s letter to Udall “fails to mention” the “overwhelming support for the provision and that the next step was to issue additional guidance.”

The PPDC members further wrote that they had expressed “serious concerns” about the EPA’s decision to overturn its proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, “[h]owever, this input is completely omitted from your letter [to Udall].” Last August, the agency rejected a ban on chlorpyrifos, a widely-used insecticide that has been linked to brain damage and other negative human health outcomes.

“We do not have an expectation that the EPA’s decisions will always correspond with our specific points of view, yet we do expect our views to be heard and we certainly do not expect them to be ignored or mischaracterized simply because they do not fit into a pre-determined political narrative,” the letter signers added.

The alleged troubling mischaracterization of EPA’s public releases of its interaction of stakeholders may perhaps be forgiven if this was a one-off occurrence. However,  pesticides like chlorpyrifos are manufactured by Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical which donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. And under the leadership of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency has appeared to take on stances that break from mainstream scientific consensus. Recently, the EPA released guidelines that “promote a message of uncertainty about climate science and gloss over proposed cuts to key adaptation programs,” the Huffington Post reported.

Moving beyond the EPA and PPDC’s war of words, the inconsistency in characterization and feedback ultimately affect one group the most: the 2.5 million farmworkers in the country. The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimated that about half of all farmworkers are undocumented. Under this presidency, they may be afraid to seek medical help if they’re exposed to pesticides out of deportation fears.

“We have to acknowledge that what we know about pesticide poisonings relies on the farmworker actually reporting the issue either via their employer at their worksite,” Andrea Delgado, the legislative director of the health communities program at EarthJustice, told ThinkProgress. “Or they actually went to a doctor to get taken care of and that the medical provider actually knows how to identify the signs of pesticide poisoning.”

“Think about all the things that have to be aligned  — that someone has to feel empowered enough to say I know enough about my rights when it comes to pesticide exposure,” Delgado reasoned.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on March 30, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Esther Yu Hsi Lee is a reporter at ThinkProgress focusing on domestic and international migration policies. She has appeared on various television and radio shows to discuss immigration issues. Among other accolades, she was a White House Champion of Change.

Trump targets USDA with some of the deepest proposed budget cuts

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

President Donald Trump ran on a platform of giving a voice to rural voters who felt forgotten by politicians in Washington. But his proposed budget, released on Tuesday, proposes deep cuts to crucial Department of Agriculture programs that many rural residents, and farmers, depend on.

The budget proposes an almost 21 percent cut to the USDA, the third-largest percentage cut proposed for any agency, behind the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. It would cut crop insurance?—?which pays farmers for losses due to extreme weather, or compensates farmers for loss if prices are higher than guaranteed at the time of harvest?—?by 36 percent, far deeper cuts than were proposed under the Obama administration. And it proposes to “streamline” conservation programs, while eliminating the rural development program aimed at bringing infrastructure, technology, and utilities to rural communities.

“The Budget Proposal guts the USDA by 21 percent and makes further cuts to programs, all of which will leave rural and urban farmers, low-income families, and taxpayers more vulnerable,” Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an emailed statement.

The proposed budget zeroes out programs like the USDA’s Farm Safety program, which seeks to reduce farm sector injuries by training workers in how to properly use farming equipment. It also eliminates programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s watershed protection projects, which helps both protect sensitive watersheds from environmental degradation, like soil runoff, and helps rural communities respond to natural disasters like floods.

“Agriculture is a risky business, and we absolutely need an adequate safety net for farmers while also providing incentives that will accelerate adoption of conservation practices,” Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress via email. “Eliminating any program that helps farmers increase resiliency and protect natural resources is a shortsighted decision that can have harmful consequences.”

Key research programs aimed at helping farmers adapt to the changing climate?—?like programs that offer grants to farmers interested in experimenting with innovative conservation techniques?—?would also face deep cuts under the proposed budget. More than $33 million would be cut from agricultural research programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which provides grants for agricultural sciences, and the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), which helps farmers fund conservation projects.

“The budget would slash funding for key agricultural research and conservation programs, undermining the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future,” Lavender said.

Cuts to USDA research programs would hardly be the first time the Trump administration showed science to be a low priority for the agency. Trump is expected to name Sam Clovis, a conservative talk-show host that denies the scientific consensus on climate change, to be the USDA’s undersecretary of research, education and economics. That would put Clovis in charge of the USDA’s entire scientific mission, including research programs aimed at helping farmers respond to climate change. Current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue also denies the scientific consensus on climate change, calling climate science “a running joke among the public” in a 2014 op-ed published in the National Review.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Trump budget does not specify what will become of one of the Obama administration’s signature climate-focused programs within the USDA, the regional climate hubs, which connect farmers with on-the-ground information about climate science and adaptation in their region. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney did say on Tuesday, however, that the budget at large was aimed at decreasing the “crazy” climate spending of the Obama administration.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress.org on May 23, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at ngeiling@americanprogress.org.

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