California Pesticide Regulators’ Lax Oversight Violates Civil Rights Laws, Coalition Charges

WATSONVILLE, Calif.—A broad coalition of pesticide-reform groups representing California farmworkers and their families called on the state attorney general to investigate systematic civil rights violations last week at a press briefing in Watsonville, a strawberry-growing stronghold about 90 miles south of San Francisco.

“The state of California uses more harmful pesticides than any other and allows farmworker communities like this one in Watsonville to be exposed to highly hazardous pesticides that can permanently damage brains, lungs and even cause cancer,” said Yanely Martinez, an organizer with Californians for Pesticide Reform.

“We need to end the secrecy surrounding pesticides and the environmentally racist policies,”  said Martinez, who was flanked by dozens of community members holding colorful signs, painted by local high school students, echoing that message.

Then, addressing the group behind her, she asked, “Yes?” In a single voice, they shouted back, “Yes!”

The policies, Martinez continued, “allow communities that are disproportionately Latino and Indigenous to be harmed.”

Watsonville High School students painted signs for a press event calling on California's attorney general to investigate civil rights violations by state pesticide regulators. Credit: Liza Gross/Inside Climate News

Watsonville High School students painted signs for a press event calling on California’s attorney general to investigate civil rights violations by state pesticide regulators. Credit: Liza Gross/Inside Climate News

The call for pesticide regulators to rectify civil rights violations follows an investigation co-led by Californians for Pesticide Reform and law professor Gregg Macey, director of the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources. The investigation included in-depth interviews with farmworkers and health and regulatory experts that helped shape a “People’s Tribunal on Pesticide Use and Civil Rights in California” in September, when a panel of expert judges heard presentations from scientists, advocates and dozens of farmworkers representing six agricultural counties. 

The judges summarized the investigation’s findings in an “advisory opinion,” a document designed to provide guidance for state justice department officials, legislators and agencies to investigate violations and ensure compliance with state and federal civil rights laws. 

California law, under section 11135, and federal law, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, prohibit recipients of government funds from discriminating in their programs and activities.

The opinion details multiple ways state and county pesticide regulators’ failures to protect farmworkers lead to disparate health impacts in violation of these laws, and reveals what it calls a central flaw in California’s pesticide regulatory system. The abdication of investigation and enforcement to county agricultural commissioners by the Department of Pesticide Regulation, or DPR, the authors conclude, “results in weak, inconsistent, and even absent protections.”

To fill the gap, they note, local coalitions and farmworker advocacy nonprofits “spend hundreds of hours trying to do a small portion of the state’s job.”

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Jane Sellen, who presided over the tribunal as co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of more than 200 of these overburdened organizations, called the advisory opinion’s findings “devastating, but not surprising” at the briefing. 

Over the course of three decades of organizing to address the pesticide threat in California’s agricultural regions, Sellen said, “we have compiled a damning record of state policy that time and again puts industry profits ahead of the health of people, workers, children and the environment. It’s a record of weak, inconsistent, neglectful and often openly hostile enforcement by county agricultural commissioners.”

To issue pesticide permits, county commissioners must take local conditions into account, including the proximity of vulnerable sites like schools and daycares, and identify less toxic alternatives when available, said Caroline Farrell, director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law and an advisory opinion co-author. 

DPR, in turn, is responsible for overseeing and advising county commissioners, and stepping in when they fail to fulfill their requirements. 

“None of these things are happening,” she said. “And the people who are feeling the brunt of this are Latino and Indigenous communities throughout the state.”

The practice of having authority but denying responsibility needs to stop, said Farrell. The state attorney general and California Legislature need to ensure DPR and the agricultural commissioners enforce the law as it’s written and fill gaps where it’s not protective enough, she said.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation is reviewing the People’s Tribunal report, and takes the concerns “very seriously,” said agency spokesperson Leia Bailey in an email.

The agency’s mission is to protect human health, including the health of workers and the environment, and has made environmental justice a department priority, Bailey said. She pointed to a draft plan outlining “immediate actions” to improve pesticide regulation and enforcement and reaffirm a commitment to equitably protect all Californians from pesticide-related risks and impacts, “particularly communities that are disproportionately impacted.”

Jessica Gonzalez, a senior at Watsonville High School, missed lunch along with two fellow students to urge pesticide regulators to prioritize health over profits at the briefing. Her parents migrated to the area from an Indigenous Mixteco-speaking community in Oaxaca and have labored as farmworkers for nearly 15 years. When Gonzalez joins them in the fields she often smells a “strong and nasty” metallic odor from pesticides.

“California’s majority Latino counties have 900 percent more pesticide use per person and per square mile than the 25 California counties with the lowest Latino populations,” Sellen said.

“If a set of state policies that so obviously targets one group of Californians for disproportionate harm isn’t a civil rights violation,” Sellen added, “we don’t know what is.”

Jessica Gonzalez joined two other Watsonville High School students to demand that pesticide regulators protect her community in Watsonville last week. Credit: Liza Gross/Inside Climate News

Jessica Gonzalez joined two other Watsonville High School students to demand that pesticide regulators protect her community in Watsonville last week. Credit: Liza Gross/Inside Climate News

A History of Discrimination Charges

California DPR is no stranger to allegations of civil rights violations. 

The agency was the subject of the EPA’s first preliminary finding of a Title VI civil rights violation in 2011—more than a decade after six parents urged the EPA to protect their kids from toxic pesticide exposures through an “administrative complaint,” which calls on the agency to fulfill its obligation to enforce the Civil Rights Act. The families’ children attended schools in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties—which all had representatives at the September tribunal—within a mile and a half of farms that applied high volumes of the potent neurotoxic and ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide to sterilize soil before planting crops like strawberries. 

Two of the schools, MacQuiddy and Ohlone elementary schools, are in Watsonville, where 95 percent and 99 percent of the students are children of color, mostly Latino. 

The EPA settled the complaint with DPR—four months after its preliminary finding and nearly 12 years after the families asked the agency to protect their children—without ever involving the families. As part of the settlement, DPR agreed to carry out air monitoring for pesticides around the schools and distribute handouts in English and Spanish that told people what to do after an accidental pesticide exposure. 

Nearly a quarter century after the complaint was filed, U.C. Irvine’s Macey said, “almost nothing changed on the ground.”

And today, 13 years after the EPA settled with DPR, five of the six schools represented in the Title VI complaint—including the two Watsonville schools—are in the top 3 percent of census tracts in California with the most hazardous pesticides applied per square mile, state data show. 

The EPA phased out methyl bromide due to its ozone-depleting effects in 2005 but exempted certain “critical uses,” including agriculture. Growers then relied on the fumigants 1-,3-D, a known carcinogen, and chloropicrin, used as a chemical warfare choking agent during World War I. 

Growers applied more than 1.6 million pounds of these fumigants within a mile and a half of the two Watsonville schools following the Angelita C. agreement (named after one of the mothers on the complaint) through 2021, a review of the most recent state pesticide records shows. They applied 141,700 pounds of methyl bromide around the schools until they stopped using it in 2015.

“This is pure environmental racism. There’s no other way you can describe this.”

The air monitors installed around the schools in the Angelita C. agreement were supposed to warn the state and agriculture commissioners when harmful levels of pesticides were detected at the schools, Mark Weller of Californians for Pesticide Reform told Inside Climate News. Instead, after more than a decade of data finding 1,3-D levels at more than twice the lifetime cancer risk level established by the state’s leading health risk evaluators, he said, “DPR redefined the lifetime cancer risk level, allowing for 14 times more 1,3-D in the air the children breathe.”

The ZIP code that includes Watsonville stands out as one of the few in Santa Cruz County with a majority Latino population, said Ann López, an advisory opinion co-author and director of the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families. In 2019, 98.5 percent of pesticides associated with childhood leukemia and 95.2 percent of pesticides tied to childhood brain cancer were applied in this ZIP code alone, she said. 

“This is pure environmental racism,” López said. “There’s no other way you can describe this.”

“Invaded” by Pesticides 

At the tribunal in September, judges heard about studies showing how pesticides interfere with brain development in the womb—when an average of 250,000 neurons form per minute—leading to increased risk of learning, memory and language deficits as well as hyperactivity, impulsiveness and autism spectrum disorder. They heard about results from the generations-spanning CHAMACOS study, which showed that children exposed to pesticides face higher risks of neurodevelopmental problems as well as metabolic disorders associated with obesity and diabetes. They also saw data showing that people living near pesticide-treated fields are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer or Parkinson’s disease.

“These studies show that California has continued to be harmed by pesticides,” said Caroline Cox, a senior scientist with the Center for Environmental Health who presented some of the evidence. 

Ironically, many of the studies used data collected by the Department of Pesticide Regulation. But the agency has not used that data to protect public health, she said.

Farmworkers traveled to the tribunal from some of California’s most productive agricultural regions to share their experiences with pesticides. They came from Fresno, Kern, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Tulare and Ventura counties, where growers applied close to 90 million pounds of pesticides in 2021 to support that year’s $7 billion in agricultural sales. 

Dozens of farmworkers testified, mostly in Spanish. They provided remarkably consistent stories.

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They spoke of being “surrounded” and “invaded” by pesticides at work, in their communities and at their children’s schools. They spoke of suffering from allergies, skin rashes and unbearable itching all over their bodies, burning eyes, asthma, cancer and other chronic health problems afflicting themselves, their children and coworkers. They spoke of children with birth defects, of kids coming home from school with bumps on their hands and feet, vomiting, allergies and needing stronger inhalers during the growing season. 

They wanted to know exactly where and when specific pesticides were applied, or were going to be applied, so they knew what they and their children might have been exposed to. But they had trouble getting information. 

They spoke of paralyzing fears of retaliation if they dared speak out about pesticides’ harms, fears of being marked as a troublemaker, fired or deported. 

Many never considered complaining, intimidated by a reporting system that requires English knowledge when most speak only Spanish or one of scores of Indigenous languages from Mexico or Central America. On the rare occasion when a worker musters the courage to report a problem with pesticides to their supervisor or county agricultural commissioner, they said, their concerns are challenged or dismissed.

“We were blown away by the response, by the stories told and by what they represent,” Sellen said. “Ongoing, systematic and widespread violations of the civil rights of residents and workers in California’s farmworking communities, both through actively discriminatory policies that cause disproportionate harm, but more pervasively through failure to investigate, to protect and to enforce existing state laws and regulations.”

Farmworkers recounted case after case where they experienced or saw practices that undercut state and county officials’ legal obligation to afford them equal protection under the law, said U.C. Irvine’s Macey. 

They talked about a breakdown of notification reporting and complaint processing due to language barriers, a culture of fear, isolation, misinformation, intimidation and retaliation, he said. “Because of this dynamic that farmworkers and their families experience every single day, the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the county agricultural commissioners do not receive the vast majority of reports or complaints that they would otherwise receive from Latino and transnational Indigenous communities.”

As a result, Macey said, regulators miss multiple opportunities to identify health hazards that should trigger field inspections and potentially cancel permits allowing use of the toxic pesticides in those communities. 

The Environmental Working Group created a pesticide mapping tool for Ventura County so community members could see when and where pesticides are used. But the data posted by the Department of Pesticide Regulation is years old—the most recent data is from 2021—making it impossible for residents to protect themselves.

The community has been asking for change for years, said Gonzalez, the Watsonville High School student. “People are getting sick. Why isn’t DPR listening?”

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