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Oakland Joins Fight to Halt State Moth Spray Plan

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 07, 2008

Oakland joined a fast-growing collaboration of cities, organizations, legislators and citizens on Tuesday looking for political and legal means to force the state to back off from plans for aerial spraying of pesticide over parts of Northern California to eradicate the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM). 

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the spray, and, in closed session, it gave City Attorney John Russo direction to coordinate with other Bay Area cities “on an aggressive legal strategy” to compel the state to perform a “serious” environmental review before conducting the spray program. 

A strategy that could also include the cities of Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito—though Russo hadn’t talked to attorneys in the other cities when interviewed on Wednesday—would bring the weight of the legal system as well as political pressure to bear on the state agency, Russo told the Planet. 

“It seems that we have to go in that direction,” he said. 

The Berkeley City Council passed a measure opposing the spray Feb. 26, but will not meet in closed session to discuss legal strategies until March 17. Albany passed a resolution opposing the spray in January. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has declared an emergency in parts of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, as well as parts of Alameda county (including Berkeley, Oakland, Piedmont and Albany) and Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, due to the numbers of LBAMs found in these areas. 

“There’s a legal question of whether they can undertake mass spraying under an emergency,” Russo said, noting that very simple acts such as cutting down a tree require environmental review, and that the spraying of this product carries with it many complex questions. 

“We’re not saying they can’t spray,” he said. “They need to show there’s no environmental impact.” 

Having declared an emergency the state is permitted to spray the product—CheckMate, made by Suterra of Bend, Ore.—before conducting an environmental review. The state has begun the review, which will not be completed before it resumes spraying in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties June 1 and before it begins spraying in the Bay Area in August. 

The state says the infestation is an emergency because it has the potential of devastating some 250 different crops grown in California. Spray opponents argue, however, that California has suffered no crop damage from the LBAM to date and that spraying the pheromone will not eradicate the moth and so the spraying would have to be conducted forever. 

The first aerial spray of Checkmate to be conducted over an urban area was done in September in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, after which more than 600 people reported ill effects including shortness of breath, nausea, itchy skin and more. 

Santa Cruz County has litigation pending against the state, targeting the absence of an environmental review before spraying. The case will go to court April 24. Russo said he may be directed by the Oakland City Council to join Santa Cruz in an amicus brief. 

Checkmate is a synthetic pheromone contained in microcapsules with inert ingredients for aerial spraying. Some medical professionals have said the microcapsules themselves present a danger to the respiratory tract of sensitive people and others say the inert ingredients that accompany the pheromone—only some of which are known—may be dangerous. The state says the product is safe for humans, but opponents say it has not been studied for long-term health impacts. 

A pheromone is a scent emitted by a female moth that attracts a male moth. When synthetic pheromones are introduced, males become confused and no longer mate, interrupting the reproductive cycle.  

The mayor’s office in Richmond and the public information office in El Cerrito both say they are looking at the question of the LBAM and may bring the matter to their city councils. The Fairfax Town Council passed a resolution stating its opposition to the spray Wednesday evening.