Chemicals and quarantines

San Francisco officials resist plans to use aerial spraying against a potentially damaging moth

As the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) pushes ahead with plans to aerially spray the Bay Area with pheromones to eradicate the light brown apple moth (LBAM), the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has signed onto state senator Carole Migden's efforts to ask CDFA to put a moratorium on the spraying.

"We haven't seen this level of concern and debate since the medfly days of then governor Jerry Brown," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi told the Guardian. "At this point, spraying sounds premature and reckless, even though I understand this is a nasty invasive pest."

Meanwhile, four members of the California State Assembly, including San Francisco's Mark Leno, are working collaboratively on a group of LBAM-related measures to address health, scientific, and efficacy issues that remain unresolved since the agency's multimillion-dollar eradication campaign began last year.

Leno's part in this collaboration with fellow assembly members John Laird, Loni Hancock, and Jared Huffman involves demanding that CDFA complete an environmental impact report (EIR) before being able to apply pesticide in an urban area for LBAM eradication, which can be a lengthy process.

"By making this an urgency measure, it would take immediate effect," Leno told the Guardian. "We recognize that urban areas are concerned about health and safety, that LBAM is a real threat to the agricultural industry, and that the other side must be considered."

Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and CDFA both gave LBAM emergency status after the tiny, leaf-rolling Australian native was found in a Berkeley backyard, the first time it was confirmed in the continental United States.

As the USDA's Larry Hawkins told the Guardian, the federal declaration of emergency allowed his department to access the Commodity Credit Corporation, a federally owned and operated entity within the USDA that supports and protects farm income and prices.

So far, the USDA has allocated $90 million to cover the costs of what Hawkins called "an expensive regulatory program," along with those of developing suitable pesticides and a nationwide survey to see if the moth has spread beyond California.

Hawkins claims the state separately declared an LBAM emergency — a move that allowed CDFA to go ahead and abate the pest — and that impacted the state's normal EIR process.

"Emergency status doesn't relieve [CDFA] of EIR requirements, but it allows them to do it simultaneously," Hawkins explained.

Since then some citizen activists have challenged the moth's emergency status, claiming that there is no evidence that LBAM has severely damaged or infested local crops. But Hawkins says this purported lack of evidence proves that the government's eradication program is working.

"We know the insect exists, that it destroys crops in other countries, and now you find the same insect here," said Hawkins, whose department has predicted that LBAM could inhabit 80 percent of the United States and nibble on 2,000 plant species.

"So, we can logically conclude it will cause damage here. The reason you haven't seen major damage here is because we've found it early enough to deal with it before it becomes substantial. And the reason you won't find reports of major LBAM damage in New Zealand or Australia is because they are constantly using pesticides," Hawkins said.

Asked if the USDA will fully disclose the ingredients of any product the state plans to use aerially, Hawkins said, "We cannot force a private company to reveal all their ingredients.