HANFORD – Proposed rules that would ban some pesticide applications within a quarter mile of schools from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays are drawing skepticism from local school officials and outright opposition from the Kings County Farm Bureau.

Todd Barlow, superintendent of Kit Carson Elementary School District in Hanford, described the rules as unnecessary.

“Quite often with top-down rules like this, our experience sort of runs counter to it,” Barlow said.

Plowed-under fields, with no crops planted on them this time of year, surround the school.

“We have very good relationships with the farmers around us,” Barlow said. “The communication is already there when they are going to do any sort of operation, even disking fields and things like that.”

The proposed rule, which hasn’t been adopted yet, would ban aircraft pesticide application and spray blast trailer pesticide application within a quarter mile of any K-12 public school from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Other types of spraying, including pinpoint spraying using a trailer pulled by a tractor, would be allowed within the quarter-mile buffer zone, but the grower would have to let the district know a few days beforehand which pesticides will be sprayed where and at what time.

According to a Department of Pesticide Regulation document about the proposed rule, the cancer risk to children from pesticides sprayed according to existing regulations is “low.”

“However, this low risk reflects compliance with current requirements in normal situations and does not account for exceptional circumstances or violations,” the document states.

The document goes on to state that the proposed rule is designed to “provide an extra margin of safety in case of unintended drift or when other problems with applications occur (e.g., equipment failure causes an unintended release of pesticide, or an abrupt change in weather conditions).”

The document states that the proposed rule is also intended to establish “minimum statewide standards.”

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is taking public comments on the proposed regulations through Dec. 9 at dpr16004@cdpr.ca.gov.

If DPR ends up adopting it, the rule could go into effect next year.

Two other local officials from rural school districts who were interviewed for this story also expressed skepticism toward the proposed rule.

“I think my position right now would be, I would be concerned about some of the unknowns in terms of what we as a school agency are supposed to do if this goes into effect,” said Tom Addington, superintendent of Central Union Elementary School District in Lemoore.

Addington is concerned about potential liability issues the district might face when they get the mandated notification from farmers about a planned spraying near a school.

Reef-Sunset Unified School District Superintendent David East has similar concerns.

“There’s no regulation as to what the school district does with [the notification],” he said. “I don’t see, at least from the education community, a lot of support for these regulations.”

East, Addington and Barlow reported that there haven’t been any pesticide-related incidents during their tenures.

That was echoed by Leonard Dias, a longtime former trustee at Kit Carson.

“We’ve never had an issue with it,” he said. “It’s not like they go out there spraying while the kids are playing.”

The Kings County Farm Bureau is opposed to the proposed rule.

“I hope we can do something to keep this from happening,” said Dustin Ference, the bureau’s executive director. “It’s not a good piece of regulation.”

Skepticism about the proposed rule goes beyond Kings County.

“A grower can say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna spray,’ but there’s not much we can do with that,” said Jeffrey Frost, a Sacramento lobbyist representing the Central Valley Education Coalition. “If it’s truly hazardous, I guess we can shut down school, but if you’re surrounded by fields, you’re going to be shut down a lot.”

The coalition represents school districts in Kings, Fresno, Merced, Madera, Tulare and Kern counties.

"We're really concerned about it," said Laura Preston, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents the Association of California School Administrators.

Preston said the concern isn't so much the quarter-mile buffer as it is the mandatory notification requirements.

"What is a principal going to do with this information that’s sent them?” she said. “They’re going to be liable.”

Preston's group joined with the California School Board Association and the Small School Districts Association in a Nov. 21 letter last week expressing "strong opposition" to the proposed regulations.

"The proposed notification requirement places an undue burden on school officials while seemingly doing nothing to make our children safer," the letter states.

The letter was addressed to DPR Regulations Coordinator Linda Irokawa-Otani.

One group in support of the proposed rule — Oakland-based Pesticide Action Network — argues that it doesn’t go far enough.

The proposed ban on aerial spraying from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. should be extended to last “around the clock” and the buffer should be one mile around schools, according to Paul Towers, a spokesman for the network.

“Communities use school sites throughout the year outside of this 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. window,” Towers said. “Schools are community centers.”

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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