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Health of future generations tied to tracking pesticides

TWO VIEWS • Oregon's budget deficit left the Pesticide Use Reporting System with no funding. Is this a blow to public health or a necessary cut to an unnecessary service?

In 1998, the U.S. Geological Survey released data demonstrating wide-scale pesticide contamination in the Willamette Valley.

It found 50 pesticides in streams throughout the Willamette Valley and 13 pesticides in groundwater samples. Ten pesticides detected in streams were at concentrations that exceeded criteria to protect freshwater aquatic life. But there was no way to know where the pesticides came from or if public health was at risk.

In 1999, the Oregon Legislature passed a landmark law establishing a Pesticide Use Reporting System that was intended to provide the public and researchers with clear information about when and where pesticides were used across Oregon by commercial applicators. This information was intended to protect public health, safeguard our children's future, protect our water, save our wild salmon and create healthy workplaces.

The law was intended to capture information about businesses and public agencies that use pesticides.

Now, in 2003, the Legislature and the governor want to eliminate your right to know about pesticide use in Oregon.

Since the passage of the reporting system, representatives of the pesticide industry have been fighting the implementation of the program. When it was clear that the public supported the program, they knew they couldn't just dismantle the program in front of everyone. Instead, they used budget chicanery and their influence with the Republican legislative leadership to cripple the program before it could ever start tracking pesticide use. They blocked the final allocation of funds to complete the development of the program last year so that, even though the law required pesticide users to start reporting in January, the program remains off-line.

And now they have convinced the Legislature and the governor to not foot the bill for the program in the coming year.

Some legislators have used the budget crisis as cover for stripping out the funding for the reporting service, but the reality is that they would have funded the program if the environmental community had agreed to significantly compromise on the level of detail that pesticide users had to report about their pesticide use. This may not seem like a significant issue, but it is fundamental.

When the Oregon Pesticide Education Network, the coalition of groups that pushed for the passage of the reporting system, first proposed the pesticide right-to-know law, we determined, after assessing the needs of agency and academic researchers, that pesticide users should report their pesticide use by the exact address.

But in order to move the concept forward, the coalition compromised to a reporting area of

1 square mile. According to the agencies and researchers who would use the data generated by the program, 1 square mile was the minimum area needed to ensure that the data would be useful.

Despite initially agreeing to

1 square mile, the pesticide industry now wants to change the reporting area to watershed (ranging from 129 square miles to 4,100 square miles in size), literally watering down the available information and undercutting the effectiveness of the program. In fact, researchers at the U.S. Department of the Interior said that location 'designations such as county, watershed or Zip Code are too general to be useful.'

So, the Legislature and the governor are left with a clear choice:

• Modify the reporting area and enact a program that doesn't produce useful information, effectively wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and pesticide users' valuable time.

• Implement the program as is, help pesticide users comply with state law, and ensure that Oregonians have basic information about pesticide use across the state.

Or they could just sidestep the issue completely and strip the funding for the program now, leaving the program, pesticide users and the public in limbo for another two years.

The choice seems clear. Let's hope our governor and our Legislature make the right one Ñ for our health and for our children's health.

Matt Blevins is legislative affairs director for the Oregon Environmental Council, which is a member of the Oregon Pesticide Education Network, a coalition of 70 organizations. He lives in Southwest Portland.