The Pesticide Wars


If the American Farm Bureau Federation has its way, the issue of whether herbicide spraying over water requires a Clean Water Act permit will be heard by the Supreme Court. A coalition of agricultural groups led by the Federation has petitioned the nation’s highest court to reverse an appellate court decision which found that such spraying requires an NPDES clean water permit. NPDES permits are required when pollution is delivered to a water body from a point source. What constitutes a point source for Clean Water Act purposes has been a major US legal issue for well over a decade with several previous cases reaching the Supreme Court.

The battle over pesticides and their regulation has been a constant of US environmental politics since Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring was published in 1962. In the West the conflict heated up in the 1970s when a group of women from Alsea, Oregon documented what they believed was an association between spontaneous abortion rates and herbicide spraying in the industrial forests near their homes.  Erik Jansson was working on pesticide issues for Friends of the Earth at the time. He publicized the plight of the Alsea women and helped create a national campaign to restrict aerial herbicide spraying.

The warning from Alsea and Friends of the Earth exploded across the West where an army of back-to-the-land hippies had recently arrived in search of a life free from industrial threats. Here in Northwest California health workers at Native American clinics also took note. On the Klamath River Karuk health advocate Mavis McCovey began tracking miscarriages and birth defects. McCovey found that during the time Agent Orange was being aerial sprayed by the Forest Service there were virtually no normal births among the Indians living along the Klamath River. The vast majority of Klamath River residents drew drinking water directly from streams that originated on national forest land that was being clearcut and sprayed with Agent Orange.   

In NW California’s Humboldt County a group was formed to monitor aerial spraying crews and to inform local residents about when and where spraying was planned. That effort led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Information Center -  the organization which would later spearhead the Headwaters Forest Campaign. EPIC remains one of Northwest California’s leading environmental organizations. 

Farm workers took up the battle in the 1980s. In 1986 Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union launched the "Wrath of Grapes" campaign to draw public attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. At that time it was common for workers to be in the fields when spraying took place. That Campaign and others eventually resulted in the adoption of regulations which prohibit spraying when farm workers are in the fields.  Regulations now also prohibit growers from sending workers into fields which have been recently sprayed.  

It was not until the early years of this century, however, that the pesticide wars began to focus on salmon and Clean Water Act requirements.  That’s when the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, in partnership with the Washington Toxics Coalition, launched the Clean Water for Salmon Campaign to protect the regions salmon streams and the salmon themselves from contamination. The campaign eventually got the EPA to consult with the National Marine fisheries Service concerning herbicide impacts to ESA-listed salmon. That in turn has resulted in no spray buffers along salmon streams. The struggle over how wide these buffers must be continues.  

Battles over pesticide regulation and the ongoing effort to regulate agricultural pollution discharges under the Clean Water Act are likely to continue. HCN has covered these issues in the past and will no doubt continue to do so. That’s because agriculture is now the major source of pollution in most western river systems.

Here are links to one, two and three of HCN's more recent pesticide features. You can find several more by searching this site using the term "pesticides".

The Clean Water Act still contains a general waiver for agricultural activities. But the ubiquitous presence of agricultural pollution in the nation’s waterways will likely result in continued efforts by environmentalists to extend Clean Water Act protections to agricultural discharges.

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