Usual Suspects

Millions for ag interests, but grape pest war could threaten public health

By Tara Treasurefield

WEST COUNTY activist Lynn Hamilton, director of the Town Hall Coalition, is worried that chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic organophosphate, may be used in Sonoma County to fight a newly found pest threatening local vineyards. Chlorpyrifos is being used in Southern California to combat the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which devastates vineyards by spreading Pierce’s disease. Through Senate Bill 671, signed by Gov. Gray Davis on May 19, the state Legislature has allocated nearly $15 million to fight the sharpshooter, no holds barred.

In March, and again this week, a 260-acre citrus grove in Temecula, Riverside County, was aerial-sprayed with chlorpyrifos to combat the sharpshooter, even though on June 8 the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned all residential and commercial uses of chlorpyrifos. (In residential/ commercial sectors chlorpyrifos is known as Dursban; in agriculture, it’s called Lorsban.) The EPA also placed restrictions on the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops, but stopped short of an outright ban.

Currently, chlorpyrifos isn’t approved for use on wine grapes in California, but if the wine industry exerts enough pressure, grape growers could get an exemption. Or they could use some other organophosphate.

“Pierce’s disease isn’t encephalitis or malaria; it affects wine grapes, not the public health,” says Hamilton. “Yet they’ve already used chlorpyrifos against Pierce’s disease in Temecula and could use it here.”

Hamilton fears that Sonoma County regulatory agencies may endanger the public health and the environment to protect wine grapes, used to produce alcoholic beverages. She hopes that regulatory agencies will instead use only those pesticides approved by California Certified Organic Farmers, and that they’ll consult local experts in biodynamics and organic agriculture before taking any action against the sharpshooter.

ACCORDING to Californians for Pesticide Reform, chlorpyrifos inhibits nervous system function and can cause headaches, dizziness, mental confusion and inability to concentrate, blurred vision, vomiting, stomach cramps, uncontrolled urination, diarrhea, seizures, birth defects, and multiple chemical sensitivities. In children, acute exposure most often results in seizures and such mental changes as lethargy and coma. Laura Breyer, a specialist in integrated pest management for vineyards, says that all organophosphates have similar effects.

Nick Toscano, an entomologist at UC Riverside, says that using pesticides against the sharpshooter is “like putting a Band-Aid on an amputation.” But he expects that Riverside County will continue to use insecticides to control infestations for some time to come.

According to Joseph Gray, senior agricultural biologist at the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, “The ideal situation [for controlling the glassy-winged sharpshooter] would be to have a state interior quarantine.”

The first step toward a quarantine is monitoring, and the Agricultural Commission is monitoring nursery stock from the south and sending it back if there’s any evidence of the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

Counties that are already infested with the sharpshooter can be expected to lobby heavily against a quarantine, as it will have a negative impact on their economies. When asked his opinion of a quarantine, Toscano laughs. “I don’t know how they’re going to keep it [the sharpshooter] out,” he says. “But people down here have already lost money ’cause they can’t move their grapes.”

It’s probable that a state interior quarantine is many months away at best. In the meantime, agricultural interests are intent on protecting their crops, and the aerial spraying of Lorsban in Temecula has set a troubling precedent.

One of the provisions of SB 671 is that the Board of Supervisors in each county will designate “a local public entity” or “local public entities” to create an anti-sharpshooter work plan for that area. Supervisor Mike Reilly, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, autonomously designated the Agricultural Commission as the sole local public entity for Sonoma County. But the supes have the discretion to designate more than one public entity to develop the local Pierce’s disease work plan.

Hamilton would like the supes to place this critical issue on the board’s agenda and allow public input. “It’s just too important to leave up to the Agricultural Commission alone,” she says. Hamilton recommends that the supes also designate the Environmental Health Division and the Public Health Department as local public entities to participate in developing the work plan.

On Tuesday, June 20, the Agricultural Commission will present its Pierce’s disease work plan before the supes, at 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa. For the time of the meeting or to express your concerns, call the Board of Supervisors at 565-2241.

From the June 15-21, 2000, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

Previous articleUsual Suspects
Next articleLocal Artists
Sonoma County Library
Support your local newspaper, contribute to the Bohemian