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EPA Farm Pesticide Ruling Pits Cotton Farmers Against Environmentalists

The National Cotton Council (NCC) is lauding an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to change some aspects of the Worker Protection Standards (WPS) that were finalized in the Obama administration.

However, environmental advocates deride the ruling as “a step backward” in protecting farm workers and rural communities from harmful pesticide exposure.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposal provides much-needed changes to what is called the Application Exclusion Zone, or AEZ. The AEZ is a 25- or 100-foot unoccupied “floating” area around any pesticide application equipment that “moves” with the equipment. This zone is to remain unoccupied during the pesticide application.

But EPA said problems arose because farmer’s homes and buildings are most often in or next to their fields and would have to be vacated under the AEZ rules. Also, many fields are adjacent to other properties and public roads where the farmer or applicator has no control.

The proposed revisions will modify the AEZ to be enforceable only on the farmer’s property, exempt immediate family from having to leave their homes or outbuildings, clarify that applications can resume as soon as an individual has vacated the AEZ and simplify the decision-making process on whether the AEZ must be 25-feet or 100-feet.

“I believe these changes, when finalized, will provide much-needed assurance to farmers and applicators, reduce their potential liability, eliminate the loss of useable field edges and still protect human health and the environment,” NCC chairman Mike Tate, an Alabama cotton producer, said. “Our industry is grateful for the practical, commonsense approach that administrator Wheeler and his team continue to utilize when determining how best to ensure public safety and health without undue, burdensome regulations on family farms.”

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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “This action will make it easier for our farmers and growers to comply with the Application Exclusion Zone provisions, providing them with the flexibility to do what they do best–feed, fuel and clothe the world.”

Environmentalists that the opposite is true and that easing the pesticide rules threatens the health and safety of farmers.

“EPA is betraying farm workers and the recommendations agreed to by stakeholders, including industry, government and farm workers, in meetings held over two decades by eliminating and weakening measures urgently needed to protect farm workers and their loved ones,” Lori Ann Burd, environmental health program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Farm workers and their families continue to be poisoned by pesticides, and if anything, the WPS must be strengthened, not weakened.”

Amy K. Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health at the Migrant Clinicians Network (MCN), said, “MCN is extremely disappointed in EPA’s proposal. It is a significant step backward in the protection of farm workers and rural communities from exposure to pesticides through drift. The AEZ was added to the recently revised WPS (2015) because these types of exposures are common causes of worker and bystander poisoning.”

The proposal is open for public comment for 90 days from the date it is published in the Federal Register.