The suit claims that the Department of Pesticide Regulation violated the California Environmental Quality Act, Birth Defects Prevention Act, and Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act.
But the plaintiffs are also taking aim at the tactics officials used to get the approval through before the arrival of a new, perhaps less agribusiness-friendly administration. Realizing they hadn't left themselves enough time to fully implement the approval process before Governor Jerry Brown was sworn in, they declared an "emergency." Under the law, registration of pesticides for restricted use can be fast-tracked in California in emergency situations.
"They created their own emergency," said Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm that is handling the case. "They didn't have to register methyl iodide. They could have waited; they just didn't want to. So our lawsuit claims that the purported emergency is bogus."
Interest in methyl iodide has risen as a result of the phasing-out of methyl bromide, chemical agriculture's fumigant du-jour until it began to be eliminated in the 1990s because of the severe damage it caused to the stratosphere's ozone layer. In terms of human health, however, the changeover represented a leap from the frying pan into the fire.
When the Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was considering allowing methyl iodide's use as a pesticide, the 54 chemists mentioned earlier in this post sent the agency a detailed letter that was at times scathing and at others pleading (PDF). "Agents like methyl iodide are extraordinarily well-known cancer hazards in the chemical community," they wrote. "Because of methyl iodide's high volatility and water solubility, broad use of this chemical in agriculture will guarantee substantial releases to air, surface waters, and ground water, and will result in exposures for many people."
The researchers concluded: "It is astounding then that the Office of Pesticide Programs is working to legalize one of the more toxic chemicals used in manufacturing into the environment."
It's worth noting that when scientists want to create experimental cancer cells in the laboratory they use methyl iodide.
But warnings from members of the scientific community—even Nobel Prize winners—went unheard at the EPA, which cleared the way for methyl iodide's use in the 46 states that don't have their own environmental protection units. Of the four states that do, New York and Washington refused to allow it. Florida and California have given the chemical their blessing.
As part of its approval of the new fumigant, Florida required that Arysta monitor air and groundwater quality near sites where it was applied. The early results showed potentially dangerous levels of the chemical and its byproducts in the air and water.
For the time being, California's decision to approve the chemical is something of a moot point. Fumigants are not typically applied during the winter. Come spring, Loarie is not ruling out using a legal injunction to stop methyl iodide's use until the Department of Pesticide Regulation obeys the law.
Correction: This piece originally included several references to methyl bromide when it should have referred to methyl iodide.