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Nestled amidst a hardware store and mini-mart in a Spanish speaking Salinas neighborhood, California Rural Legal Association is an unlikely warrior. Aside from a sign reading “Asistencia Legal Rural de California,” the low lying brown building is indistinguishable from the street. Inside, however, Directing Attorney Mike Meuter is battling a formidable team: chemical companies, growers, the state attorney’s office, the county’s agricultural office, and the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

CRLA, a non-profit providing legal assistance to low-income Latinos, wants to end pesticide spraying near Monterey County’s Pajaro Middle School and La Joya Elementary School. Air quality tests taken last fall indicated methyl bromide concentrations of 7.7 parts per billion near Pajaro and 3.8 parts per billion near La Joya. According to standards set by the state, children should be exposed to no more than one part per billion over an eight week period.

To strawberry growers, methyl bromide fuels an industry that generates more than $227 million each year in Monterey County. Although the federal government has banned the chemical beginning in 2006, agricultural interests hope to reverse the decision, saying it could devastate business. To students, staff and neighbors of Pajaro and La Joya, chemicals are endangering their lives. Methyl bromide has been shown to cause birth defects and neurological damage, and in high concentration, death.

“The chemical companies and growers say that no harm is being done, but everyone with common sense knows differently,” said Cheri Alderman, a teacher at Pajaro and a member of Farm Without Harm, a group against pesticide use.

According to Alderman, Pajaro students and staff have complained of headaches and difficulties breathing. They attribute the problems to methyl bromide, although no tests have been done to confirm their suspicions.

Pesticide safety standards were developed from tests on beagles, and methyl bromide advocates claim that a 100-fold safety margin exists for human beings. They say that even though air tests show concentrations above one part per billion, no imminent health threat exists.

“They’re saying that it’s not that big of a deal,” Meuter said. “They’re guessing.”
Bill Thomas, attorney for pesticide company TriCal, did not return phone calls to comment on the case.

Latinos form the majority of the Pajaro student body, and most are the children of field workers. Alderman believes that many families are afraid to speak out against pesticide use. Some are illegal, and others worry about angering their employers.

“How do you fight the person that pays you to do the work?” Alderman said.
One parent is finally speaking up. Sergio Carrillo, a 30-year-old Pajaro resident who works at a mini-mart and lives near the school, is the plaintiff in CRLA’s case. The lawsuit claims that state and county officials failed to protect residents near Pajaro and La Joya after last year’s tests indicated danger.

Carrillo and the CRLA won the first battle in August. Monterey County Superior Court judge Robert O’Farrell issued a temporary restraining order stating that pesticide concentrations must be reduced to one part per billion. O’Farrell ordered county and state officials to do additional methyl bromide tests. In addition, chemical companies must cover sprayed fields within 1,000 feet of the schools for 10 days after pesticide application, rather than the typical five.

On October 3, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Richard Silver took under submission a CRLA request for a preliminary injunction to limit pesticide use. A preliminary injunction would extend the previsions of the restraining order. If the injunction is granted, the CRLA will take the case to trial and ask for a permanent order. Silver did not say when he would make a decision regarding the preliminary injunction.

According to Meuter, the CRLA decided to tackle the case not only for students at La Joya and Pajaro, but for the farm workers who spend their days in the fields.

“It’s like working in a toxic oven,” Meuter said.

Alderman agrees that ending pesticide spraying during school hours isn’t enough. Last year, growers agreed to apply chemicals only on the weekend. Some students attend Saturday school, however, and they have witnessed helicopters spraying the fields outside their classrooms. Much of the student body live nearby Pajaro and the strawberry fields, meaning exposure could occur at any time.

Alderman believes that halting methyl bromide use is the only solution.

“There’s been all this stuff about chemical warfare lately, and they’re already doing it here,” Alderman said. “They know how dangerous it is, but they still do it in the name of the dollar.”