FRESNO, Calif. -- California pesticide regulators discriminated against Latino schoolchildren when they annually approved a powerful pesticide used near their schools, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday.
The preliminary finding is part of a settlement stemming from a civil rights complaint filed in 1999.
The complaint alleged that annual approval of methyl bromide use by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation had a disproportionately adverse impact on the health of Latino children because their schools were often close to agricultural fields.
Officials said the settlement is historic, because it's the first time the agency has issued a finding of adverse and disparate impact on a community in a civil rights case. The complaint was part of a backlog of more than 30 unresolved cases, some of which were first accepted by the agency in the 1990s.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin by institutions that utilize federal funds. The EPA distributes funds to the California regulatory agencies, including the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
The EPA Office of Civil Rights analyzed pesticide use data in California from 1995 to 2001, using an exposure model to predict air concentrations at more than 8,000 schools. It concluded that Latino children were at greater risk than non-Latino children and were adversely affected during that period.
Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said the adverse effects are not ongoing, because use of methyl bromide has decreased and California has since instituted more stringent standards and mitigation measures for the fumigant.
Methyl bromide – which is injected into the soil to kill pests, weeds and diseases before crops are planted – is being phased out by 2015 under international treaty because it depletes the Earth's ozone layer. Some farmers continue to use it, because they are granted an exemption by pesticide regulators.
Between 1999 and 2009, farmers' use of methyl bromide nationwide declined. Use in orchards and perennial crops was reduced by more than 95 percent, while use on strawberries dropped by 60 percent, according to the EPA. In California, 17.1 million pounds of methyl bromide were applied in 1995, while 5.57 million pounds were applied in 2009, according to state regulators.
Methyl bromide is being replaced with another fumigant, methyl iodide, which was approved by California regulators in December. Scientists and environmental and farmworker groups say it also has adverse effects on children and families, because it's highly toxic and can cause cancer.
In April, 38 California legislators asked the EPA to pull the chemical off the market and reopen its scientific evaluation. Gov. Jerry Brown has also said his administration would take a fresh look at state regulators' decision to approve the new fumigant.
Activists protested on the steps of the Capitol this week and hundreds of people bombarded Brown's Facebook and Twitter accounts asking him to ban methyl iodide.
As part of the settlement with the EPA, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation has to expand monitoring of methyl bromide air concentrations by adding one monitor in the area of highest risk, a school in Watsonville.
Department spokeswoman Lea Brooks said it disagreed with the EPA's conclusions and was surprised when it was notified about the investigation in April, because the complaint was 12 years old.
"We disagree with U.S. EPA about the methodology and assumptions in the analysis and dispute that there were adverse or disparate effects on Latino children during the time period examined," Brooks said.
Since 1999, as new science about methyl bromide became available, Brooks said, the department has implemented stricter measures to protect and inform communities about methyl bromide. Those include a community guide to recognizing and reporting pesticide problems, expanded air monitoring and a cap that limits total usage within specified geographic areas in each calendar month. California's use restrictions on methyl bromide are the toughest in the nation, Brooks said.
But the measures and the settlement don't provide any remedy to the parents or children whose civil rights were violated, said Brent Newell, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment who filed the complaint 12 years ago on behalf of parents and children in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Ventura.
"It provides no substantive relief or remedy to the people who were affected," Newell said. "Those school children have since graduated from high school and the EPA gave them no remedy."
The EPA could have referred the case to the Department of Justice for prosecution, he said. EPA also failed to inform the families who filed the complaint when the agency notified state regulators about its findings in April.
And because the state continues to grant exemptions for use of methyl bromide and has now approved methyl iodide, scores of other Latino school children may be at risk, Newell said.
"Now it's the next generation of Latino children that EPA and California are failing to protect," he said.