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Judge orders moth spraying halted
Question of whether ingredient dangerous
By JULIA REYNOLDS and DANIEL LOPEZ
Herald Staff Writers
Monterey County Herald
A judge ordered a last-minute halt to aerial pheromone spraying, citing questions about a top-secret ingredient allegedly used in the pesticide formula that was applied over the Peninsula in September.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Judge Robert O'Farrell issued a temporary restraining order that will stop the area's second round of spraying until at least Oct. 18, when a hearing will be held to consider additional evidence in a lawsuit filed by Peninsula activists.
O'Farrell named the ingredient in question — polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate, or PPI, which is listed as a "hazardous agent" by the National Institutes of Health on the agencies' Web site. The site noted reports of occupational asthma among spray painters exposed to it.
But a number of chemists say PPI is unlikely to harm humans when mixed with other ingredients in the pesticide, and when it is applied over such a large area in a short period of time.
On Wednesday, pilots were prepared to start spraying in less than three hours when the restraining order came in, grounding the planes at Salinas airport, said Jay Van Rein, of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
"I think the people of the Monterey Peninsula can breathe easier," said Alexander Henson, attorney for Helping Our Peninsula's Environment, which filed the suit.
Spraying is taking place under the direction of the state Department of Food and Agriculture to eradicate an infestation of light brown apple moths. State officials say that, if not controlled, the moth could cause $650 million in damage to plants and crops.
In his order, O'Farrell wrote that if the plaintiffs merely requested a halt to spraying the pheromone itself, he would have denied the request.
But he granted the order, O'Farrell said, because plaintiffs expressed concerns about another alleged ingredient — PPI.
There are two formulas intended for application in the area, one called Checkmate OLR-F, which was used in last month's application over the Monterey Peninsula, and Checkmate LBAM-F, which officials planned to use this week. Key ingredients of the Checkmate products have been guarded as trade secrets by Suterra, the manufacturer of the pheromone spray.
Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said in September that the difference between the two formulas was the pheromone — a synthetic version of a substance secreted by the female moth that in the new version would be more specific to the light brown apple moth.
Henson said HOPE learned the list of ingredients in the first version, Checkmate OLR-F, including those held as trade secrets, after they were inadvertently released by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
The list was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 28 and was posted on the newspaper's Web site.
The list has since been removed and replaced with a note that states the ingredients are protected from public disclosure under the California Uniform Trade Secrets Act.
Don Miller, managing editor of the Sentinel, said the list was removed from the Web site after lawyers for Suterra informed the paper the ingredients were protected under state and federal trade secret laws.
In its suit, HOPE alleged that PPI could have "potentially harmful propensities for a segment of the population," according to O'Farrell's order.
"Neither side has had an adequate opportunity to submit reliable scientific evidence on the issue," O'Farrell wrote, "and consequently the court is not in a position to rule in a vacuum of information."
The next step for his clients, Henson said, will be to get the state to acknowledge whether PPI is actually in the spray's formula.
But in his order, O'Farrell seemed to confirm that PPI is an ingredient in the Checkmate version to be sprayed this week when he wrote "... It has been determined that the Checkmate product to be applied contains another ingredient, polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate."
After that, Henson said, "the burden is on the state" to prove PPI is safe.
CDFA spokeswoman Nancy Lungren said, "We look forward to a hearing on the matter and pledge to work to provide the judge with all the information he requires to issue a decision."
Julie Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or jreynolds [at] montereyherald.com.
Daniel Lopez can be reached at 646-4494 or dlopez [at] montereyherald.com.
For information about the Department of Food and Agriculture's moth spraying plans go to http://www.cdfa.ca.gov
Go to our Web site for information linked to this story about the Department of Food and Agriculture's moth spraying plans.