Sunday, August 03, 2008

Channeling my inner Paul Harvey...

And now, the rest of the story (about the regulation of pesticides in California).

In 1977, a company was spraying an herbicide in Mendocino County, California (an important county for agricultural production—not only marijuana, though pot exports from the county are estimated at around $5 billion a year!) in an effort to retard the growth of hardwood trees in favor of growing more coniferous trees, which the company was harvesting. The spraying was done by plane, and the herbicide was found off the company’s property in several areas (including all over a school bus).

Mendocino County, which has been on the front lines of a number of environmental/agricultural regulation issues (from pesticides to banning GMO crops to seeking to certify marijuana grown there as organic), decided to regulate the aerial spraying of the chemical. This 1977 county ordinance was tied up in the court systems until 1984, first being challenged by California Attorney General George Deukmejian (Deukmejian was a Republican who later became governor; his administration rolled back countless environmental provisions in deference to business interests). The law was challenged on grounds that this kind of regulation was the state's jurisdiction, not that of municipal goverment. In 1984, the California Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the use/application method of a herbicide/pesticide did not conflict with any state law, in that it did not duplicate or contradict any extant state law. From the reading I’ve been doing, it seems that logic went as such: since the state law did not expressly grant the right to use a particular method of application, the county ordinance banning it did not contradict a right expressly given by the state. Similar cases have arisen in the U.S. Supreme Court with respect to the conflict of federal and local laws, with somewhat mixed results. The Environmental Law Institute’s Deskbook of Pesticide Regulation has an interesting (if somewhat hard to follow for those, like me, who are among the legally uninitiated) discussion of the gray areas of these laws.

Industry quickly lobbied for a new state law-- the 1984 state law was quickly passed. This new law took on the municipal regulations head-on and expressly prohibited local governments from regulating “any matter relating to the registration, sale, transportation, or use of pesticides” and declared the local ordinances “void and of no force or effect”. Harsh, no?

That leaves us to California AB 977 (24 years later...), sponsored by Fiona Ma. This would restore the ability of local governments to regulate pesticides. This would be a hell of a law for a Republican to oppose—it is so easy to frame as a “Big Government telling local communities what do to” issue. Not that I find a great deal of ideological consistency on the right; it seems a non-rabid conservative could get behind something this, at least from an anti-Big Government standpoint.