It's been an environmental murmur in the agricultural industry for almost two decades now, but the ramifications could soon be seismic if the issue of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from pesticide emissions are not given due diligence. VOCs contribute to the formation of ground level ozone and are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.

“VOC emissions are essentially the next step for pesticide regulation,” says Paul Buttner, manager of environmental affairs for the California Rice Commission. “We've long assessed pesticides for impacts on water quality and wildlife. Air is the new frontier. Future VOC regulation will likely elevate pesticides to more of an even par with other pollutants.”

Many pollutant sources contribute to VOC emissions, including vehicular traffic, oil and gas production, dairy waste and many more. In the grand scheme of air quality, VOC emissions from pesticides are only a minor contributor, estimated to account for less than 3 percent of the VOC emissions inventory in California, according to the California Air Resources Board (ARB). However, in certain agricultural areas such as the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, pesticide VOC emissions are estimated to account for as much as 10 percent of the inventory.

While some commodity groups have shuffled the VOC issue to the bottom of the priority pile, others have taken a very proactive stance in dealing with proposed regulations. The cotton industry has been at the forefront of the debate. Bringing reason to the process has been a focus since the beginning for Roger Isom, vice president and director of technical services for the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA).

“We have been involved since the beginning, which in the case of pesticide VOCs was 1994,” he says. “That year the federal EPA proposed to implement a Federal Implementation Plan (FIP) which included ‘no spray days’ and mandatory 45 percent reductions in pesticide VOC emissions across the board.

“Their idea was to address the highest VOC content pesticides first, regardless of actual emissions,” Isom says. “The problem with that proposal was that pheromones are considered pesticides and would have been the first chemicals under regulation and mandatory reformulation, because they are almost 100 percent VOCs. However, actual VOC emissions are negligent. The plan was ill-conceived and not well thought out. We were the first group involved, and along with the Nisei Farmers League, actually were the only groups to testify in opposition to the EPA's FIP.”

20 percent cut

Later that year, DPR and ARB submitted a State Implementation Plan (SIP) that replaced the FIP. It called for a 20 percent mandatory reduction of pesticide VOC emissions (based on a 1990 established inventory baseline) and included the use of strategies such as integrated pest management (IPM) and voluntary reformulation of pesticides.

DPR was charged with reducing pesticide VOC emissions in California in five federally designated “non-attainment areas,” regions that do not meet either federal or state ambient air quality standards. In California, those areas include: Sacramento Metro, San Joaquin Valley, Ventura, South Coast and the Southeast Desert.

The original specified targets for those areas ranged from 12 percent pesticide VOC reduction in the San Joaquin Valley by 1999 to 20 percent reduction in the other areas by 2005 to 2010. That goal was not achieved in the San Joaquin Valley by 1999 and DPR is currently out of compliance with the pesticide SIP for that area. To make matters worse, the standards got stricter in 2004 when the U.S. EPA issued a stricter 8-hour standard for ozone compliance to replace the original 1-hour standard, and environmental groups started suing DPR and ARB for failure to meet the deadlines imposed in the 1994 SIP.

Situation today

To bring the San Joaquin Valley into compliance as quickly as possible and conform to the new stricter 8-hour federal ozone standard, DPR initiated two recent “re-evaluations” to pesticide registrants.

“The first re-evaluation deals with eliminating gaps in our database on how much VOC emission potential exists in pesticide products,” says Paul Gosselin, DPR chief deputy director.

A re-evaluation dealing with pesticide VOC potential was issued in 1994 and 1995, but was either ignored by some registrants or extensions were sought for various reasons. As a result, DPR only had VOC data on approximately 30 to 40 percent of pesticides and was forced to assign others the default emission potential value, which in many cases was probably inordinately high.

“We're still going through the responses on the request for that information which was due Dec. 31, 2005. It's been a good response rate, but there are still some that are missing,” Gosselin says.

Another re-evaluation, which was due last March 1, dealt with reformulation of certain liquid pesticides — particularly emulsifiable concentrates (EC) - for potential to decrease VOC emissions. Those responses have not yet been fully tabulated, but Gosselin expects the process will only take another month or two. Unlike earlier re-evaluations dealing with VOCs, which accommodated extensions and delays, the latest requests for data are more akin to being written in stone rather than on a blackboard. Ignoring it this time won't make it go away.

Cancellation notice

“We've been fairly flexible up to this point with those who haven't responded,” Gosselin says. “That's no longer the case. Failure to respond to either of these two re-evaluations will result in a ‘notice of cancellation’ to the pesticide's registrant.”

Western Health Plant Association (WHPA) is one of the industry associations helping registrants wade through the VOC issue in an attempt to find workable solutions. From an industry perspective, chemical manufacturers certainly do not want past efforts in VOC reduction to go unnoticed or unaccounted for.

“We are documenting changes in formulations and application practices to demonstrate reductions that should be accounted for over the past decade,” says Renee Pinel, WHPA president and CEO. “We have also been working with DPR to make sure that registrants submit the requested information on currently registered products.”

At this point, it's largely a matter of communicating the details of a very complex issue to a wide array of industry players so that they will have a say in upcoming regulation. “We are working to make sure that agricultural groups are informed of the information developed by our industry,” Pinel says.“We are committed to making sure that they are part of an informed discussion on reduction strategies, so they understand the positives and negatives of strategies being considered by DPR like reformulation.”

Reformulation is a complex issue itself within the even more complex issue of pesticide VOC reduction. It is one of the few regulatory options of complying with VOC reductions that DPR can estimate with any accuracy given the current database. Liquid (non-fumigant) products comprise approximately 40 percent of the pesticide VOC emission inventory for the San Joaquin Valley non-attainment area, according to DPR, and are likely the only viable candidates for re-formulation at this point.

Making matters even more complicated, re-formulation may address the concern of pesticide VOCs, but simultaneously create additional concerns in other environmental areas. There is a widespread concern among the ag industry that reformulation could potentially price registrants out of the market or at least add more burdensome costs to growers who are already struggling with high production costs.

“We are very concerned about the cost impact to the manufacturers and ultimately to growers,” Pinel says.“Re-formulation is a costly process that, depending on the size of the intended market, can be prohibitive. We are also concerned about the cost to growers. Re-formulation may be an option in some cases, but the cost to growers may be higher. Can growers absorb these costs in our global economy? Re-formulation may also result in higher application rates. We are concerned about the impact to agriculture if we are forced into a trade-off of lower VOCs, but higher use rates.”

Environmentalists

Several environmental groups have filed lawsuits against the EPA and DPR demanding enforcement of national air quality standards. In California, Earthjustice, a group of environmental lawyers headquartered in Oakland, is active in coordinating various groups to file suits on behalf of various plaintiffs even though Earthjustice is not located in the designated non-attainment areas. The group actively recruits other local environmental groups and uses those organization names to file lawsuits. In January 2006, Earthjustice filed a suit in U.S. District Court against the EPA in an attempt to force the agency to require enforceable “contingency measures” in the San Joaquin Valley. Those measures could include mandatory enactment of proposed “no spray days” among others.

Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of three plaintiffs: Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, the Sierra Club and the Latino Issues Forum.

Earthjustice asserts that the contingency measures included in the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's 2003 PM-10 Plan consisted solely of promises to consider future rulemaking, not actual control measures, as required by law.

“When the air district promised to reduce particulate matter, they were also required to come up with a plan if those reductions were not met,” said Kevin Hamilton of the Fresno-based Medical Advocates for Healthy Air. “The EPA is required by law to approve a solid Plan-B that will get the job done, but this has not happened, and we continue to see the results in the region's emergency rooms when people come in gasping for air.”

It's emotional language not unfamiliar to the agricultural industry, but still the type of public press that places increasing pressure on agriculture. The case is still pending, according to Isom. In one of the latest developments, the judge had denied the petition for summary judgment and ruled that the case must be heard.

Industry involvement

The pesticide VOC debate calls for a proactive industry, according to Isom. “If we're not proactive, they're going to dictate to us,” Isom says. “For example, the environmentalists and regulators really like the ‘no spray day’ concept, which would prohibit pesticide applications during peak ozone days. The problem is ‘no spray days’ could be called like ‘no burn days’ and could go on indefinitely. How does a farmer address an emerging pest problem under that scenario? Lygus aren't going to hold up and wait to chew on a cotton boll until it's legal for us to spray them.”

In spite of the frustrations in dealing with emerging VOC regulation, there are bright spots that have already been achieved due to industry involvement. Pheromones are now exempt from the compounds being considered for possible re-formulation. If the industry can make the case against re-formulation for others due to various reasons such as compromised efficacy, those may also gain exemptions.

A unified voice will likely become even more important as regulators, environmentalists and commodity organizations work to shape the future of VOC regulation. “We believe that it is critical to be involved in this process,” says Roberta Firoved, manager of industry affairs for the California Rice Commission. “We have the best technical advice to assist the regulators in what could work for the growers in the overall goal of reducing VOC emissions and what is simply unworkable. We strongly believe that a team approach to this issue, as well as other environmental issues, is the best solution.”

What's next?

What the future holds for VOC regulation as it pertains to pesticides is uncertain at this point. “The potential for reformulation is the most significant discussion going on right now,” Gosselin says. “We're also looking at possibilities such as changes in application method and the use of tarps and other methods that might reduce VOC emissions. As this process has unfolded, we've seen increasing cooperation among registrants, agricultural groups and the university. I think this bodes well for agriculture and the attempt to find practical solutions.”