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Group Sues CA Over Cancer-Causing Pesticide

A coalition of environmental and farmworker groups said in a lawsuit announced Monday that state pesticide regulators improperly cut off public comment on a controversial agricultural fumigant in order to secure its passage before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's term ended.

The suit, filed by the lawyers with Earthjustice and California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., accuses the Department of Pesticide Regulation of violating state law by mischaracterizing methyl iodide's approval last month as an emergency action.

"DPR created a political 'emergency' by insisting on locking in its decision before a new administration takes office," CRLA attorney Mike Meuter said in a statement.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court, also says that regulators did not sufficiently evaluate the pesticide's risk and that their approval was based on insufficient data, among other claims. It seeks to have the pesticide's approval vacated.

DPR spokeswoman Lea Brooks said her agency has not reviewed the lawsuit, but she defended the approval.

"The department believes it followed the registration process," Brooks said. "Registration of methyl iodide was not fast-tracked."

A spokeswoman for methyl iodide's Tokyo-based manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience Corp., which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said company officials have not had a chance to review the complaint.

The DPR approved methyl iodide for use by fruit and vegetable growers despite heavy opposition from advocacy groups, who cited its placement on California's official list of cancer-causing chemicals.

The groups also stressed that the DPR's own scientific advisory panel raised concerns that the substance could poison the air and water.

Methyl iodide opponents said Monday that they submitted some 52,000 comments to the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, who took office Monday, urging him to prevent methyl iodide's use.

"We expect Gov. Brown to do much better than his predecessor, whose environmental legacy is defined by hypocrisy," said Paul Towers, state director of Pesticide Watch Education Fund, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The pesticide's approval occurred under the watch of DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam, an appointee of Schwarzenegger, whose tenure received mixed reviews from environmental groups.

A spokesman for Brown did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Methyl iodide was approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007 as a replacement for the fumigant methyl bromide, which is being phased out by international treaty because it depletes the Earth's protective ozone layer.

Methyl iodide is now registered in 47 other states. Current users include growers of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other crops in southeastern states.

California's $1.6 billion strawberry industry will undoubtedly provide one of the biggest markets for the chemical, as will the Central Valley's nut orchards and the fresh flower nurseries dotting the coast in Ventura and San Diego counties.

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