Oregon regulators will allow farmworkers and their families to take shelter indoors from drifting pesticides under controversial rules adopted Monday by the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or Oregon OSHA.
The new rules are part of an effort to clarify “Application Exclusion Zones” introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency in its 2015 update of the federal Agricultural Worker Protection Standard.
The zones — or AEZs — require farms and orchards to evacuate workers within 100 feet of where trucks or planes are spraying pesticides, returning only after the equipment has passed. Farmers, however, quickly realized that the law did not address farmworker housing that may be within the AEZ.
The issue is especially problematic for fruit growers in the Columbia River Gorge, who often spray their orchards in the early morning when there is no wind. They argued the AEZ rules would force them to rouse workers from their sleep and remove them from their homes when it would be safer to let them remain indoors.
Oregon OSHA ultimately agreed, and provided for a shelter-in-place compliance alternative so long as doors, windows and air intakes are closed during spraying and the chemical does not require use of a respirator on its label.
“If it’s a structure that can be closed, and given that we’re talking about off-target drift that shouldn’t be occurring in the first place, there is an added level of protection allowing people to shelter in place,” said Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA administrator.
For chemicals that do require the use of a respirator, the rules become much more strict, with the AEZ expanding to 150 feet and removing the shelter-in-place option. That exceeds the normal 100-foot requirement under the EPA guideline.
Pesticide drift is already illegal in Oregon, though it does sometimes occur. The Oregon Department of Agriculture investigated 172 complaints of chemical drift resulting in 38 violations in 2016, and 82 cases resulting in 10 violations in 2017.
Putting the new rules into action means farmworkers and their families will be better protected in Oregon than they are in the vast majority of the country, Wood said. The rules take effect Jan. 1, 2019.
The rules, however, were sharply criticized by both grower groups, who claim the protections go too far, and farmworker advocates, who claim they do not go far enough.
Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers Association, said members are pleased to see a shelter-in-place option for the 100-foot AEZ, but added a 150-foot AEZ for pesticides that require use of a respirator is not backed by scientific evidence.
“We just have to come in and adhere to a whim because somebody thought it was a good idea,” Doke said.
Approximately two-thirds of Oregon’s 314 registered labor camps are in Wasco and Hood River counties, home to most of the state’s pear and cherry orchards. Doke said growers do not heavily use chemicals that require a respirator, but that could change as the industry faces challenges from new emerging pests, such as the brown marmorated stink bug.
In the end, the AEZ rules may force some growers to remove housing or blocks of trees, resulting in lost jobs and production, Doke said. The hardest hit may be small growers, who may be forced to sell to larger companies, he added.
“It’s another cost they can’t incur,” Doke said.
Adam McCarthy, co-owner of Trout Creek Farm Management in Parkdale, Ore., grows pears, apples and cherries for the fresh market on roughly 250 acres south of Hood River. He said they spray pesticides that require a respirator two or three times a year, which will now require him to evacuate as many as 10 housing units around the orchards.
“Now you’re going to have this process where there’s going to be a need for them to leave their living quarters and go somewhere where Oregon OSHA has not defined. ... I think that puts more risk into the equation,” McCarthy said.
Lisa Arkin, executive director of the group Beyond Toxics based in Eugene, Ore., said her organization advocated tougher pesticide rules, including a no-spray buffer to protect labor camps.
House Bill 3549, which passed the Oregon Legislature in 2015, already requires that forest managers conducting aerial sprays cannot come within 60 feet of homes or schools. Arkin said the same standard should apply to agriculture when spraying around farmworker housing.
“The fact that Oregon OSHA has denied even this very modest no-spray buffer for farmworkers and their homes appears to me to be differential treatment for farmworkers,” she said.
Ramon Ramirez, president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste — the largest Latino union in Oregon — agreed the pesticide protections do not go far enough to protect farmworkers.
“The fact of the matter is that labor camps in the Willamette Valley are in really bad shape, and also in Jackson County and in different places,” Ramirez said. “It is important that farmworkers be protected.”
Ramirez said the union is evaluating its next steps, and may consider legal action. He said the average life expectancy of farmworkers is just 49, compared to 78 for the rest of the country, and workers are also at higher risk for cancer and miscarriages.
“We think farmworkers are being shortchanged on their lives to put food on the table,” Ramirez said.