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Documents Show Deep Rift Over Methyl Iodide Approval, Director’s Concern Over Manufacturer’s Reaction

| August 26, 2011
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Late last year, just before Governor Schwarzenegger left office, his administration approved a controversial strawberry pesticide called methyl iodide. Environmental groups quickly sued to have the decision overturned.

Photo: KQED QUEST

A key question posed by the plaintiffs was this: Why was the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) allowing farmworkers to be exposed to methyl iodide at levels more than 100 times higher than what the agency’s own staff scientists believed was safe?

When pressed for documents that might reveal the agency’s rationale, the then-head of the DPR, Mary-Anne Warmerdam, declined to release them, saying they were legally protected by what’s called the “deliberative process” exemption under the California Public Records Act; this allows some of the back-and-forth between agency decision makers and their advisors that preceded a particular decision to be kept private under certain circumstances. A public records act request filed by KQED elicited the same response.

Earlier this month, a judge disagreed (.pdf) and ordered the DPR to release the documents, which plaintiffs shared with reporters on Thursday.

The documents show a deep rift within the DPR, between staff scientists who believed that methyl iodide was too hazardous for farmworkers, and the DPR managers, led by Warmerdam, who approved it.

The MeI RCD has been vetted in a transparent manner, has undergone a rigorous external peer review, and we stand by our methodology. If the risk management approach is to be predicated on another approach [that] should be selected in a transparent and credible manner. We may not agree with that decision, but that is management’s prerogative. However, the presentation of that risk management decision should not imply that the DPR risk assessment is the basis for that decision…

-Memo from Jay Schreider, Primary State Toxicologist

Referring to the DPR’s explanation for why it had approved methyl iodide, Jay Schreider, the Primary State Toxicologist wrote, “I am puzzled by the numbers cited.” Warmerdam’s methods for reaching the agency’s allowable exposure levels were “not scientifically credible,” wrote Schreider.

Other documents show Warmerdam rejecting scientists’ recommendations on the grounds that they are “excessive and difficult to enforce.” The pesticide manufacturer, Arysta Lifescience, might find those recommendations “unacceptable,” or “not economically viable,” Warmerdam wrote.

“[Warmerdam's] method was to consult with the pesticide manufacture and determine what was acceptable to them, and then decide on what an acceptable level of exposure was,” said Susan Kegley, a consulting scientist for Pesticide Action Network, one of the groups suing the state.

DPR spokeswoman Lea Brooks declined to comment on the documents, citing the pending litigation. “It is inappropriate to try this case in the media,” Brooks said. Warmerdam resigned from the Department of Pesticide Regulation in January. Governor Jerry Brown has yet to appoint her successor.

The fact that the documents were released at all is a rebuke to the DPR. In his order, Judge Frank Roesch of the Alameda Superior Court found that the “great majority” of the documents should never have been withheld in the first place, either from plaintiffs or reporters. As for the rest, wrote Roesch, “the interest in public disclosure clearly outweighs agency interest in non-disclosure.”

You can listen to the audio version of this report here.

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Category: Science

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine. Reach Amy Standen at astanden@kqed.org.

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