Nozzle’s Open, Case Closed?

Written by Peter Koht
Wednesday, 07 November 2007

Not quite. The never-ending saga of the Light Brown Apple Moth moves into a new phase—pheromone application.

The People’s Republic of Santa Cruz got a lesson in civics last week from the Golden State. Faced with the imminent dispersal of a synthetic pheromone named CheckMate to disrupt the breeding cycle of the invasive Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), county counsel Dana McRae filed suit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

In a nutshell, the county feels that “that insufficient testing has been done on this product to confirm that it will not cause harm to humans and the environment; and that plaintiff [the county] has presented evidence to suggest that the recent aerial spraying of the Checkmate pesticide has caused harm to people in the Monterey County area.”

Supported by a number of statements from Monterey County residents who felt ill after the first application of CheckMate back in September, as well as statements by esteemed scientists and toxicologists, the county’s legal salvo was a last-ditch effort to forestall six nights of spraying that was set to begin on Nov. 4.

As part of the filing, McRae asked for a temporary restraining order on the application. Judge Paul Burdick rejected the restraining order on Friday, Nov. 2. That same afternoon, residents in 95060 walked to their mailboxes to find a note from CDFA waiting for them.

In addition to a glossy insert detailing the area to the treated for the ocean-hopping invasive moth, the package contained that most Socratic of public relations tools, a list of frequently asked questions.

Echoing one of the most frequently pondered queries in the whole sordid affair that is life on planet LBAM, on its first page, the brochure reflexively stated, “Why is this eradication project an emergency?”

In response, the CDFA says, “data from our statewide insect trapping efforts shows that this infestation is a recent arrival to California. The populations of LBAM are still relatively small and are considered by an international panel of expert scientists to be eradicable if significant action is taken promptly … Failure to act quickly could result in uncontrolled spread and substantial environmental and economic impacts.”

The county doesn’t mince words in its assessment of this emergency declaration. “CDFA’s use of emergency and categorical exemptions to evade the requirements of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law. There is no emergency, and the County is informed and believes that CDFA’s mass aerial spraying of this pesticide will not help the environment.”

Like most government documents mailed to the public, the brochure is pointed in the questions that it fails to raise. While detailing how long the intended pheromone applications will last, it limits the scope of the applications to six nights, rather than the monthly applications that the CDFA plans to apply over the course of the next three years. Only five pages later does the CDFA let slip that “the pheromone treatments are a central part of multi-year project that will require multiple tools to be successful.”

Richard Philp, a Canadian scientist and professor emeritus of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Western Ontario, claims in his contribution to the county’s suit that the CDFA’s primary weapon, aerial spraying, is an extremely experimental endeavor.

“In none of the documents I reviewed, including the USDA environmental assessment, is there any mention of previous experience with aerial spraying of populated, urban areas,” the professor told the court. “Previous efforts to control LBAM in the proposed treatment area employed ground application techniques.”

The chemical expert goes on to detail his other concerns with CheckMate. “No information regarding respiratory toxicity or absorption is generally available, no carcinogenicity studies have been performed on some and I was unable to find inhalation toxicity studies for any of the inert ingredients. This further supports my conclusion that this product should not be aerially sprayed as intended at this time.”

And then there’s the basic question of whether or not pheromones will even work. Dan Harder, a botanist employed by UCSC and member of the LBAM Task Force, who has previously been profiled in the pages of GT addresses this point from a different angle in his deposition before the court.

“The information I have reviewed thus far indicated that mating-disrupting pheromones have never been shown to completely eliminate any insect pests anywhere in the world, moth or otherwise.”

Harder then goes on to poke more holes in the CDFA’s plan, including the fact that no peer-reviewed literature of this kind of aerial application is available and that the buffer zones established by the CDFA over riparian areas and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary will allow LBAM populations to continue to survive during the applications process.

Given that the first planned night of sprayings was delayed due to thick fog, and that the ten-day-forecast shows a good chance of rain, Harder’s other main point in his deposition, that the window to zap the current breeding cycle of LBAM has passed is even more poignant.

“The information I have gathered and my professional training and experience indicated that the LBAM will not be breeding in the winter months beginning in November, as the rains begin and the temperature drops, Instead, throughout November and most of the winter months, the moths will remain as caterpillars and not become adults.”

One other troubling aspect of the CDFA’s public relations campaign is that the agency seems unable to provide politicians, scientists and activists with any form of scientific, rigorous or timely environmental review. By proceeding on emergency grounds, and sidestepping the requirements of CEQA, the agency opens itself up to many avenues of questioning that could be settled by the environmental review process.

On this issue, the brochure let slip a bombshell. “CDFA has declared an emergency to allow the eradication to begin under a temporary exemption from environmental analysis, with the understanding that a full environmental assessment of the project, including these emergency treatments, will be required. That assessment, will likely take more than a year to complete and will begin in the next few months.”

Just because the temporary restraining order wasn’t extended doesn’t mean that the court fight is over. The county will press on with its legal challenge even as the fixed wings crisscross the county.

In the meantime, politicians and enraged activists have stepped up the rhetoric and threats. Some persons plan on leaving the area under the nozzle, while city council member Tony Madrigal spent part of Sunday evening passing out cloth masks [which cannot actually filter out the pheromone from oxygen] to passersby on Pacific Avenue.

Assemblymember John Laird, whose office has been inundated with LBAM concerns since summer, fired off a statement on the coming spraying on Nov. 3. “Of greatest concern to me is the notion that speculative economic impacts may be outweighing the need to protect human health. In Monterey County there are reports of more than 200 health complaints associated with aerial spraying. Yet, to date there is no evidence that reports have been analyzed, and a promised ‘white paper’ on the toxicological data on the pheromone product and the health complaints taken as a whole has not been released. In fact, in his Oct. 26 letter to me, CDFA Secretary Kawamura indicated there are no plans to either study long-term effects of the spraying or conduct an epidemiological analysis of the complaints CDFA has received.”

That seemingly disinterested engagement from CDFA might be the single biggest factor in the public’s discontent with the plan to eradicate LBAM from this side of the Pacific. But as the judge’s ruling shows, discontent isn’t enough to stop that state.

1. 07-11-2007 17:44

I am deeply appreciative Peter
Koht is continuing the coverage on
this LBAM spraying. While, the
topic may not be "sexy", I hope
we can move through "burn-out" and
keep digging for the facts, asking
the tough questions and not "tune out
and turn off" because we want
entertainment more than we
want solutions to real problems.
Thanks Good Times! Keep digging on this one.