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EPA aims to reinstall worker protections from pesticides

The Environmental Protection Agency is requesting public comment on a proposed rule that would retain various pesticide application exclusion zone requirements amended but not implemented as part of a previous agency final rule currently under a court-ordered stay.

Unveiled Feb. 16, the proposal seeks to “improve and modernize” protections under the agency’s 2015 standard on agricultural worker protection, an agency press release states. EPA classifies the application exclusion zone as “the area surrounding the application that must be free of all persons, other than appropriately trained and equipped handlers, during pesticide applications.”

Under the proposal, EPA would reinstate provisions including:

  • Applying the AEZ beyond an establishment’s boundaries and when workers are within easements, such as for utility workers to access telephone lines.
  • Establishing AEZ distances for ground-based spray applications of 25 feet for medium or larger sprays when sprayed from a height greater than 12 inches from the soil surface or planting medium, and 100 feet for fine sprays.

EPA issued a final rule in October 2020 revising the AEZ requirement. However, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York last year extended its stay of the rule, which initially was granted on Dec. 28, 2020 – the day before the final rule was to have taken effect.

The prepublication version of the proposal states that “since the 2020 AEZ rule has not been implemented due to the court-ordered stay,” the 2015 WPS “continues to provide the operative regulatory language for the AEZ requirements during the current stay and any future extensions of the stay.”

Still, the agency proposes to keep elements of the 2020 rule, including:

  • Exempting farm owners’ immediate family members from the requirement.
  • Establishing clarifying language stating that pesticide applications suspended as a result of individuals entering an exclusion zone may be resumed after the individuals have left the area.

“EPA’s top priority is to protect public health and the environment,” agency Administrator Michael Regan said in the release, “and today’s proposal is a significant step forward to further protect the farmworkers, farmers and pesticide handlers who deliver the fuel, fiber and food that runs America. Farmworker justice is environmental justice, and we’re continuing to take action to make sure these communities are protected equally under the law from pesticide exposure.”

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