Public hearings held in January by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) emphasize the point of how difficult it is to arrive at a fair and balanced solution to California’s air pollution problems — while attempting to make everyone happy.

In both hearings (Jan. 12 in Bakersfield and Jan. 14 in Sacramento) activist groups accused DPR of backpedaling on regulations to reduce air pollution caused by pesticides. Some even called for the dismantling of the agency, claiming it was not fulfilling its duty in protecting California residents from the harmful effects of chemicals in dirty air. They also criticized DPR for not having managers appear personally at either of the hearings.

For those who frequently read this column, you’ll recall that last summer an appellate court ruling overturned a lower court decision that forced DPR to enact excessively stringent emission reduction standards targeting volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOC is one of the components of smog; when combined with nitrogen oxides and baked in atmospheric heat, the two elements form ozone.

Under the new rules, DPR proposes to reduce VOC emissions by 12 percent in the Sacramento Metro, San Joaquin Valley, South Coast and Southeast Desert regions. Ventura County would remain the only region in the state subject to a four-year 20 percent reduction in VOC emissions from fumigants. The reductions would increase to 3 tons, up from 2.6 tons per day under current rules. Fumigants are used to control pests in the soil and are especially important to many commodities such as strawberries. Because strawberries are such a dominant crop in Ventura County, fumigants account for 85 percent of all VOC emissions from pesticides. The department hopes to implement the new rules by May 1, the start of the 2009 ozone season.

Also under the new rules, growers would be given time extensions to implement the new reduction provisions, until 2011 for the majority of regions, and 2012 for Ventura. (This is because DPR is still developing a grower allowance program which could allow for a trading off of credits for growers over or under their individual yearly emission allotments). Under the overturned court mandate, DPR would have been forced to implement the tougher rules last year along with overall 20 percent reductions.

The fact that farmers would be given lower reduction goals and time extensions appeared to be the principal bones of contention among those speaking at the public hearings. I attended the hearing on Jan. 14 inside the California EPA building in downtown Sacramento. While activists claimed that over 200 people attended the Bakersfield meeting a few days before, fewer than 100 attended the Sacramento hearing. The groups came from as far away as the Coachella Valley in the Southeast Desert; many came from areas such as Arvin, Grayson, Westley, Patterson, Fresno and Visalia. They represented groups such as Californians for Pesticide Reform, the Pesticide Action Network North America and the California Rural Assistance League.

After almost two hours of testimony, it may have been difficult for some members of the audience not to have been moved by the stories told by some of the speakers. Most spoke of asthma, allergies, rashes and cancers afflicting their families — especially their children — and these are maladies they stand convinced were caused by pesticides from the many years they spent in the fields. They blame the California EPA, DPR, California Air Resources Board and chemical manufacturers for not protecting them from harmful air pollution. I arrived at the conclusion that nothing one could say to these speakers would placate their anger — vented so raw, viscerally and emotionally at the powers that be.

Those of us in agriculture constantly point out that farmers and their families live in these communities too, and have the same degree of concern as other farm-working families. And progress toward improving conditions is apparent, gauging from recent favorable indicators.

In the latest results for 2007, use of crop-protection materials and other pesticides in California dropped for a second consecutive year, according to DPR. Its annual usage report for that year showed an 8.4 percent decline compared to the previous year. About 172 million pounds of pesticides were applied statewide, a decrease of nearly 16 million pounds.

Additionally, growers are increasingly using new technologies such as drip formulations, deeper shank injection, improved soil moisture conditions and tarps to mitigate emissions. And while the industry’s contribution to VOC emissions is exceedingly small (3 percent to 6 percent) when compared to other contributors such as automobiles, the industry obviously realizes the need for it to do its share whenever possible. Also, reformulated non-fumigant products with lower VOC emission potential will soon be on the market.

Lastly, in September the U.S. EPA announced the San Joaquin Valley was in compliance with national standards for a certain air pollutant, a particulate matter pollution known as PM 10. In order to be in attainment, the Valley had to go three years without exceeding the national PM 10 level. PM 10 is a mixture of soot, dust and liquid droplets caused by wood-burning and farming. While EPA has declared the San Joaquin Valley in compliance for PM 10, the region still does not meet national standards for smog and fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, a specific pollutant tracked to VOC emissions.

The new rules that DPR has come up with will go a long way in reducing PM 2.5 and overall VOC emissions — but not in the immediate time frame some would like. But under the old rules vast amounts of cropland up and down the state would have been idled to meet the tougher standards and some farmers — especially in these tough recessionary times — would have been forced into bankruptcy because of a failure to meet the accelerated deadline.

Detractors are fast to call for the elimination of all pesticides, but fail to recognize the benefits to agriculture. For the most part, DPR should be applauded and not criticized for striking a fair balance between the two sides.