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After 20 Years of Wrangling, Cal's Pesticide Restrictions Upheld

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 11, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Environmental and community advocates won't be able to force stricter pesticide emissions restrictions in California, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday. A coalition of groups, lead by El Comite para el Bienestar de Earlimart, had challenged the state's Clean Air Act pesticide regulations, arguing that they did not reduce emissions enough and would lead to excessive levels of exposure for Latino youth.

The regulations in question were first proposed in 1994 to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act. Under California's State Implementation Plan (SIP), certain pesticide emissions were to be reduced by up to 20 percent of their 1990 levels by 2005. It wasn't until 2012, however, that the EPA determined that the California SIP included enforceable regulations.

18 Years Later, Did the Regulations Backslide?

California's original plans had referenced a 20 percent emissions reduction in all nonattainment areas in the state. In the 15 years that passed between when the SIP's pesticide reductions were first proposed and when the EPA finally approved later revisions, that reduction target had changed to 12 percent -- but only for the San Joaquin Valley. That's the sort of "backsliding" the Clean Air Act prohibits, El Comite argued. Under the CAA, the EPA cannot approve a SIP revision that interferes with attainment of air quality standards.

The lower number was not backsliding, the Ninth Circuit found. The original Pesticide Element refers to 20 percent as a goal, not a commitment -- a goal which the state quickly pulled back from. That ambiguous language, as well as the further goals of the regulatory scheme, was enough to justify the EPA's interpretation that the SIP was not moving away from attainment commitments.

Will Higher Emissions Lead to Civil Rights Violations?

The CAA also requires that state SIPs include "reasonable assurances" that no other laws will prevent their plans from being carried out. El Comite argued that there could be no such assurances since the lower emissions objectives for the San Joaquin Valley would likely violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The EPA had already found such a violation in the state's registration of fumigant pesticides which disproportionately affected Latino children.

That case had already been settled, the Ninth noted, and the state had complied with the settlement. Since El Comite provided no additional proof of Title VI violations, it cannot claim that those violations would prevent the SIP from being enacted. The ruling is a blow to community organizations who have worked for years to improve environmental conditions for poor, minority Californians, but could provide extra support for pesticide regulations which have faced almost two decades of challenges.

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