Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Farmworker safety: Cal/OSHA responds
By Mauricio Pena
Following questions about heat-related deaths and illnesses among farmworkers, the chief of California Division of Occupational Safety and Health said Tuesday that her agency never wants to become complacent when it comes to improving worker safety.
“We are always concerned about workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths,” Juliann Sum told The Desert Sun in a short telephone interview. “We work as hard as possible with employers, workers, labor organizations to make sure workers are protected.”
“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” she said.
The Desert Sun published a series of stories on heat-related deaths and illnesses among farmworkers which highlighted an increase in the number of suspected heat deaths investigated by Cal/OSHA since 2008.
While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized only six as heat related, according to state data. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.
Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014, However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. Farmworker deaths and illnesses exceeded fatalities and illnesses in all other outdoor agencies statewide, according to data obtained by The Desert Sun.
Sum said with all of the cases investigated, the agency looks at a multitude of factors, including ambient temperature, medical history, and working conditions before classifying a death as heat related.
So far this year, Cal/OSHA is investigating four deaths and 18 illnesses among farmworkers suspected of being heat related.
Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, said he wants to follow up with Cal/OSHA to learn more about how the agency categorizes deaths as heat related, as well as to understand its enforcement efforts.
“This year there’s been tremendous strides with significant policy changes in regards to the (Heat Illness Prevention) regulation,” Garcia said.
“The numbers tell me that there is a lack of access to healthcare services for the farmworker population,” he added.
Garcia said preventive measures such as providing water and shade are largely understood but more direct efforts could be made to target the farmworker population when it comes to offering much needed healthcare services.
Since the state enacted the 2005 Heat Illness Prevention Regulation, the first of its kind in the nation, heat deaths and illnesses among farmworkers have eclipsed all other industries with outdoor workers.
Earlier this year, the agency amended its regulations. The changes came following discussions and lawsuits prompted by a spate of heat deaths in 2008 and 2009.
The updates to the standards include an acclimatization period, where employers are required to closely observe new employees during their first two weeks working in high heat; provide shade for all workers and a rest or meal break at 80 degrees, lowered from 85, and water and shade to be provided as close as practicable.
Through “educational outreach, enforcement and the improved standards this year,” Sum said the agency is continually working to address heat illnesses for all outdoor workers.
KQED News, San Francisco
Why Solving California’s Water Woes Will Take More Than Rain
By David Marks
California is finally getting some rain — and there’s been enough snow in the Sierra already for some ski resorts to open early. But the impact of California’s drought will be around for a while, and a long-term solution to the state’s water problems will require a lot more than just one winter of rain and snow.
KQED Science editor Craig Miller joined The California Report on Friday to discuss the drought and a new report that urges the state to address perhaps its most fundamental water challenge.
The study, from the Public Policy Institute of California, argues that the growing demand for water makes it imperative to reform the state’s system of allocating this essential resource. The PPIC report says the drought has shown the water rights system to be “fragmented, inconsistent, and lacking in transparency and clear lines of authority.”
“The PPIC is attacking the sacred cow by saying it’s time to make some changes in the water rights system,” Miller said. “Water rights in California are sacrosanct. They’re like property rights. They are property rights. They determine the pecking order, when water is short, of who gets what and when.”
But the PPIC report stops short of recommending that the state change that “sacrosanct” priority system.
“The PPIC is not saying it’s time to throw out the whole system … but to make it more even-handed, like Australia, where they’ve put a system in place where when water is short, everybody takes a haircut,” said Miller.
One way the PPIC recommends making the system more even-handed is to keep certain rights owners from gaming the system.
“It’s a special case, it gets a little complicated, but [this happens when] people who have two different types of water rights can kind of toggle back and forth to whichever is more advantageous for them at the time,” Miller said.
The PPIC says it’s time to amend the law to require rights-holders to choose between one right or the other for the same land. But since making that change would require legislative action, don’t hold your breath.
In the meantime, Gov. Jerry Brown says the state needs to extend the water restrictions he put in place in April.
An executive order the governor issued two weeks ago says that if drought conditions persist by the end of January, then the range of watering and other restrictions that have already been in place would run through next October.
So how will we know if drought conditions persist?
“I asked the state water board how we’ll know, and the answer I got back was, ‘They will,’ ” Miller said.
“I have heard scientists say it would take double the statewide average of precipitation to make up the cumulative rain and snow deficit from this four-year drought,” Miller said. “If that actually happens, the impacts would be biblical and we’d all be looking to build an ark at that point.”
Demands on desert aquifer look a little nutty
By Lois Henry
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who gasped (figuratively speaking) when pistachio farmer Paul Nugent told the Board of Supervisors at its Nov. 17 meeting that his and a partner’s trees, when mature, would consume 20 percent of all groundwater pumping in the Indian Wells Valley.
“Why are we growing pistachios in the desert, particularly when it results in a minuscule percentage of landowners sucking up a fifth of the region’s available groundwater?” one observer asked in an email.
Indeed, that’s a question many area residents have had for several years as pistachio planting ramped up between 2010 and 2013. And their water tables dropped.
Nugent’s partner Rod Stiefvater confirmed that their 1,600 acres of pistachios will at some point require about 6,500 acre feet of water per year, or a fifth of the overall basin demand of 32,000 acre feet per year.
To put that in perspective, you have to understand the basin’s total recharge is 7,700 to 11,000 acre feet a year.
That means two landowners will consume half (if not more) of all the recharge coming into that basin.
And, by the way, they aren’t the only ones farming pistachios in the Indian Wells Valley. There are about 2,500 total acres planted in nut trees.
Pistachios take about four acre feet of water per acre per year, or 10,000 acre feet per year for 2,500 acres.
Nugent was making a case for farmers to get a seat on the Indian Wells Valley groundwater sustainability agency (GSA), which the board voted to spearhead at the Nov. 17 meeting.
GSAs are required by state law to come up with plans on how users will keep groundwater in balance in overdrafted basins, either by reducing pumping, increasing recharge, or both. Who gets a seat on the GSA is critical.
Nugent’s position was that because they are big water users, growers should have a say in the valley’s water future.
“I was taken aback by Nugent’s comment about these two farmers taking 20 percent of the total water production and that was justified a seat on the GSA,” said Supervisor Mick Gleason, who represents the Indian Wells Valley. “There is a place for ag to take a role in understanding our aquifer and a place for ag to help us come to solutions. But what their role is has yet to be defined.”
Stiefvater was confident the solution would have to be imported water.
“Hopefully, the GSA will focus on that,” he said.
Water could come from other desert aquifers, or through exchanges or contracts from farther away, possibly using the Los Angeles Aqueduct, he said.
“But that could be expensive,” he acknowledged.
Wellllll, I’m not so sure that’s a great solution.
First, there isn’t a lot of loose water rolling around California. Finding someone to exchange or outright sell water to the desert might not be so easy.
Second, and more important, the Indian Wells Valley has no infrastructure for importing water. There are no canals or pipelines to bring water over the Sierras or up from other desert valleys.
The only pipeline in spitting distance is the LA Aqueduct and I was told several years ago by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that there is no capacity in that line for anyone other than LADWP customers.
Sure, enough money always seems to make impossible deals possible.
But that kind of money would almost certainly have to come from tax dollars, not a handful of growers. And the Indian Wells Valley doesn’t have a large tax base to pull from.
Building the infrastructure to get water into the Indian Wells Valley would likely be upwards of $10 million to $15 million, minimum, by one guesstimation.
That would be a crushing tax load on the sparse population out there.
More likely, Stiefvater, Nugent and other farmers will have to face groundwater pumping restrictions, either by order of the GSA or by incentive. And that will likely mean pulling up trees.
Gleason said he wants to move as quickly as possible on the GSA and get a plan for the valley together by no later than 2018, two years ahead of the state deadline.
His urgency centers around BRAC, or base realignment and closure.
The federal government is always looking for military budget cuts and if the China Lake Naval Weapons Center is in danger of losing the water necessary to its mission, it could become a BRAC target.
“We want a plan done quickly so when BRAC raises its ugly head, we can say, ”We may have a water issue, but we also have a plan.“ That’s a value to the Navy and the community.”
I wish them all luck, but I admit I see “lawsuit” written all over this one.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email email@example.com.
Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.
Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.
$1,5 million penalty for Williams tomato processor
By Kirk Barron
The smell coming from cooling and settling ponds at the Morning Star Packing Co.’s tomato processing facility in Williams led to an inspection that could cost the company $1.5 million.
Five residents of Williams filed odor complaints with Colusa County Environmental Health between Aug. 6 and 14, prompting the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to contact Morning Star.
A tentative cease and desist order, and an administrative civil liability complaint of $1.5 million, were levied against the company Friday by the board, listing 10 violations, including some that could lead to groundwater contamination.
The company has until Dec. 10 to pay the penalty. If it chooses not to, a hearing will be set before the board in February.
According to the cease and desist order, the plant violated a 2013 waste discharge requirement order for how to discharge wastewater from the facility, which makes tomato paste and diced tomatoes. A call to board officials was not returned.
Morning Star spokesperson Ross Oliveira said he could not comment about the specifics of the complaint, but the company will look at the data.
“We run a very efficient factory, and we did a major expansion this year,” Oliveira said. “We feel there is no degradation to water quality and we hope to resolve this with the board.”
The plant’s cooling and settling ponds were part of the expansion, which Oliveira said were permitted through Williams, but are not permitted through the waste discharge requirements and have the potential to degrade groundwater, according to the cease and desist order.
Inspectors discovered the expansion of the ponds reduced the amount of cropland acreage the wastewater was discharged to, which led to concerns about the effect on naturally occurring metals in soil. Concentrations of one such metal, manganese, exceeded limits in three monitoring wells, according to the board.
Other problems addressed in the cease and desist order include; unpermitted disposal of 110 million tons of silage, organic matter discharged in the cooling pond and improper measuring techniques.
The order listed 21 requirements, each with its own deadline, that Morning Star must address, including restoring the cooling and settling ponds to the permitted size and increasing the acreage of cropland to which the waste water is applied.
Violations alleged in the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board tentative cease and desist order:
– Unpermitted expansion of the cooling pond and removal of the land application area.
– Unauthorized discharge of organic waste to the cooling pond.
– Odor violations.
– Dissolved oxygen violations.
– Unpermitted expansion of the settling pond.
– Effluent and mass loading limit violations.
– Groundwater pollution.
– Solid waste management violations.
– pH effluent limit violations.
– Stormwater violations.
CONTACT Reporter Kirk Barron at 749-4796. firstname.lastname@example.org
Are pesticides to blame for the massive bee die-off?
By Allison Aubrey
JUDY WOODRUFF: In this week when we think about food, we take a look now at the vital role bees play in getting some of your favorite dishes to the table, and the way commercial beekeepers in the U.S. are struggling to keep their bees healthy.
Allison Aubrey of National Public Radio has our report.
The story is part of the NewsHour’s ongoing collaboration with NPR.
ALLISON AUBREY: It’s harvest time at Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, South Dakota. Bret Adee’s the third generation to manage the 80,000 hives the Adees have scattered across five Midwestern states. He says beekeeping these days is much harder than it’s ever been.
BRET ADEE, Adee Honey Farms: In 2010, our bees were just destroyed in a couple of weeks. Most of our bees died.
ALLISON AUBREY: Bret says things really haven’t improved much.
BRET ADEE: I would to see about twice to three times as many bees in most of the hives right now. It will be a real challenge to keep them alive through the winter.
ALLISON AUBREY: The Adees are not alone. According to a preliminary survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, commercial beekeepers lost 42 percent of their colonies last year. Bees are a critical part of agriculture.
Adee trucks his bees out to pollinate California’s almond groves every year. And it’s not just almonds. Bees pollinate everything from apples to cherries and squash. To figure out what’s plaguing the bees, the Obama administration assembled a task force last year. Scientists at the EPA, USDA and researchers across the country who have been studying the problem are finding there are multiple issues.
Bees have fewer wildflowers to forage on due to a loss of habitat. There’s viruses that pests pass on to the bees. Climate change is thought to play a role too. Another issue is pesticides. Some studies suggest that a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoid, or neonics for short, are harming the bees.
These pesticides are coated onto the seed of about 80 percent of the corn that’s grown in the United States and about half the soybeans too. To get a sense of that scale, imagine a cornfield like this taking up the entire state of California. That’s how much of this pre-treated seed is being planted.
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE, Purdue University: This is what corn seeds look like after they have been treated.
ALLISON AUBREY: The pesticide is put onto the corn before it’s ever planted?
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: That’s right.
ALLISON AUBREY: Christian Krupke is an entomologist at Purdue University who studies bees. His research shows that neonicotinoids can harm bees.
What is a neonicotinoid?
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: A neonicotinoid is — as the name would suggest, it’s based on nicotine. They’re less toxic to mammals, which is a big feature in their wide adoption. But they are more toxic to honey bees and to other insects.
ALLISON AUBREY: Neonics are a relatively new class of pesticide. They have been around since the early 1990s. They are easier for farmers to use than the traditional method of spraying crops. And according to researchers at Penn State University, their use has increased more than 11-fold since 2003. Companies that sell them are making billions of dollars.
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: Virtually all of these large acre plants are being treated. So, the level of use is way out of step with the level of the threat. In most fields, and where we have worked, we just haven’t been able to find levels of pests that would justify the level of use.
ALLISON AUBREY: Krupke published a study that linked bee deaths with the pesticide-laden dust that flies up during the planting of the pre-treated corn seeds.
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: We collected some of those bees and analyzed them and found neonicotinoids on them and in them, so there is an intersection between planting these crops and killing foraging honey bees.
ALLISON AUBREY: Bayer CropScience is one of the leading manufacturers of neonicotinoids. Bayer’s chief scientist, David Fischer, acknowledges Krupke’s findings, but he says Bayer has a seed lubricant that reduces the dust. He says that, outside these acute exposures, neonicotinoids are not harmful to bees.
DAVID FISCHER, Bayer CropScience: We have done those studies. And those studies basically show, if you spray the product, it’s not safe for the bees. If you apply the product to the soil or as a seed treatment, the level of residues that gets up into the plant is in a safe range.
ALLISON AUBREY: Christian Krupke is not convinced.
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: We find these pesticides in the water. Bees drink water. Plants use water. We find that wildflowers that grow near these areas also have some of these pesticides in them. You add that up over the course of a season, and, yes, we do find concerning levels.
ALLISON AUBREY: Krupke says those levels do not kill the bees, but may leave them more vulnerable.
Bayer’s chief scientist says the major threat to bees is a mite that punctures the honey bees body and feeds on its blood. It’s known as the Varroa mite. And a recent report issued by President Obama’s task force also points to the mite as one issue.
DAVID FISCHER: Eighty percent of the problem is Varroa mites and the viruses and the diseases those viruses cause.
ALLISON AUBREY: But some beekeepers suspect the increased use of the newer pesticides is making their bees more vulnerable to the mite.
BRET ADEE: For 15 years, we managed that Varroa mite and kept our losses under 5 to 8 percent. Now we’re losing 50 percent of the bees every year.
ALLISON AUBREY: Pesticide manufacturers, including Bayer and Syngenta have launched campaigns of their own to boost bee health. Both companies are planting millions of flowers in the U.S. to increase bee forage.
And in 2014, Bayer CropScience opened this $2 million bee care center in North Carolina, where they conduct workshops and tours. Environmentalists say these initiatives are a diversion from the real problem, the pesticides these companies manufacture, something Fischer rejects.
DAVID FISCHER: Bayer has actually been in the business of providing products to beekeepers for more than 20 years. It’s not something that we just started doing.
ALLISON AUBREY: Beekeepers in Europe came out in force a few years ago in support of the European Union’s partial ban on the use of some of these neonics.
And here in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency says it will speed up a safety review and likely not allow any new uses of the pesticide. Environmental groups are locked in several court battles challenging the EPA over the registration of these pesticides.
Manufacturers maintain that neonics are vital for increasing crop production and safer than spraying.
DAVID FISCHER: They’re extremely valuable. They increase crop yields often by 20 percent vs. the other competitors. So, they contribute billions of dollars to the ag economy in the United States.
CHRISTIAN KRUPKE: That would be true if these products, these neonicotinoids, were indispensable to these crops, to agriculture, but they’re not.
Some of our own work in corn and the work of others in the United States has shown that it’s very difficult to consistently show a yield benefit.
ALLISON AUBREY: Lucas Criswell farms close to 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and rye in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley. He has stopped using treated seed because he found it wasn’t only killing the bad pests, but the pests he needed to ward off the slugs that were eating his soybean crops.
LUCAS CRISWELL, Farmer: The soil in our fields are a huge ecology of different critters and insects. And they’re all there. We need good and bad. It takes a balance of them all, and that’s what we have seen.
ALLISON AUBREY: Criswell now keeps pests at bay in his fields by planting crops that encourage beneficial insects. The treated seeds cost more, so this method ends up being cheaper for him.
Is it too soon enough to say whether you’re getting the same yields?
LUCAS CRISWELL: Is there corn growing on that hill? It grew.
ALLISON AUBREY: It looks like a lot of corn.
Earlier this year, President Obama’s task force called for a reevaluation of the pesticides. And, consistent with the president’s requirements, the EPA has expedited its review.
I’m Allison Aubrey of NPR News for the PBS NewsHour in Bruce, South Dakota.
Why turkeys are safer this year
We don’t often write about government doing its work as it should. And yet, in the area of food safety, an unhappy and sometimes deadly event has become rarer, and that is worthy of note in this season of holiday feasts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service has reported a 10 percent decrease in foodborne illness from meat, poultry and eggs.
The number is still high, 386,265 cases in 2014. But it’s falling. There were 479,621 reported cases of salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli attributable to meat, poultry and eggs in 2012.
It’s not by accident. The inspection service under director Alfred V. Almanza and his boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has focused on foodborne illness, bringing to bear a zero-tolerance policy for raw beef products, new and tougher standards for salmonella and campylobacter, and more intensive inspection of chicken parts.
So far in 2015, inspectors have ordered 142 recalls of meat, poultry and egg products, up from 94 in 2014, and 69 in 2009, when President Barack Obama took office.
The service attributes the rising number to increased emphasis on inspecting for allergens in spice blends, and on insistence that imports be submitted for inspection. Importantly, the bulk of these recalls are occurring before the products reach grocers’ shelves.
Obama and former President George W. Bush can share credit. After 9/11, the Bush administration increased funding to enhance surveillance of the food supply.
Then in 2009, as Obama entered office, a salmonella outbreak killed nine people and sickened more than 700, prompting more change. After the outbreak was traced to a vermin-infested peanut processing plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America, Congress – then controlled by Democrats – approved the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most significant food safety legislation in seven decades.
Rules implementing aspects of that law will take effect in 2016, and could further improve food safety. Also, two months ago, Peanut Corporation owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison, following conviction on federal conspiracy and fraud charges.
Damning evidence against him included an email in which he wrote, “Just ship it,” after employees warned that some of his products tested positive for salmonella.
Just shipping Parnell to prison sends an unmistakeable message, Seattle plaintiffs’ attorney William D. Marler, who sued Peanut Corporation of America and its many corporate customers, told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. Though defendants paid about $50 million in settlements, the cost of recalling all the tainted peanut products was $500 million.
Messages like that don’t get dished out without good government.