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
attorneys office, the countys agricultural office, and
the states Department of Pesticide Regulation.
CRLA, a non-profit providing legal assistance to low-income Latinos,
wants to end pesticide spraying near Monterey Countys 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,
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
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.
Theyre saying that its not that big of a deal,
Meuter said. Theyre 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?
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 CRLAs case. The lawsuit claims that state
and county officials failed to protect residents near Pajaro and La
Joya after last years tests indicated danger.
Carrillo and the CRLA won the first battle in August. Monterey County
Superior Court judge Robert OFarrell issued a temporary restraining
order stating that pesticide concentrations must be reduced to one
part per billion. OFarrell 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
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.
Its like working in a toxic oven, Meuter said.
Alderman agrees that ending pesticide spraying during school hours
isnt 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.
Theres been all this stuff about chemical warfare lately,
and theyre already doing it here, Alderman said. They
know how dangerous it is, but they still do it in the name of the