Sunday, February 12, 2012

Independent voice is silenced in merger

Elizabeth Strother

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

For policymakers who weren't around back in 1989 when Virginia's Pesticide Control Board was established, it seems a simple, logical step to write it out of existence and let the board governing the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services take up oversight of pesticide regulation.

"The board works objectively. The VDACS board will consider agriculture and the general public" in directing staff dealing with pesticide issues, Agriculture Commissioner Matt Lohr said in a phone interview about the change — contained in Gov.Bob McDonnell's 2012 Executive Reorganization Plan to streamline state government.

Policymakers who were around at the board's inception are skeptical.

"If you go back to the beginning and say why it was set up independent from the agriculture board," said George Gilliam, the state's first Pesticide Control Board chairman, "my understanding is because the agriculture people's principal job was to promote agriculture in the state.

"That's very important, but it didn't appear to me and, I think, to the General Assembly and the governor at the time that the agriculture board was the appropriate place to put control of toxic chemicals."

The pesticide board "was responsible for some fairly tough actions that got support from the [pesticide] applicator and agriculture communities," Gilliam said, citing in particular its early action to ban granular carbofuran, which was killing birds.

He credited that success to a citizen board set up by law to represent all stakeholders — the agriculture and forest industries, the pesticide sale or application sector, the public health and environmental communities and three "citizen members," one of whom was — to date, still is — appointed by the governor as chairman.

"I don't think deals like that can get done without a board independent of the agricultural community."

Joe Wilson, who owns a commercial termite and pest control business in Central and Northern Virginia, served on the pesticide board with Gilliam and remains on it today. "I'm the charter member," he noted. "I've been reappointed by six governors. I think we've done some very important work."

At this point, Wilson said, the reorganization is a "train that's left the station." A Republican governor wants it, and a Republican General Assembly is inclined to give him what he wants.

"So, if we're going to be combined or merged" with the VDACS board, he said: "One, there's going to have to be a pesticide voice on that board representing things we're dealing with on the Pesticide Control Board. And two, these folks are going to have to meet longer. ... We're a working board."

The latter alludes to what retired Office of Pesticide Services staffers, concerned about the reorganization, say is a key difference between the two appointed boards: The pesticide board directs policy and makes decisions — most notably on funding research — independent of department leadership.

That, Wilson said, means long meetings listening to scientists talking about, say, the collapse of bee colonies.

He has his wish about a pesticide applicator seat on an expanded VDACS board. Lohr noted that the administration "tried to represent the two major interests of folks in the pesticide industry" by expanding the VDACS board.

It still will be dominated by agricultural interests, though — as an agricultural board should be.

But will health and environmental interests be represented, as they are now on the pesticide board?

"Not specifically," Lohr said. "But it will take on what the board was tasked to do. Those interests will continue to be dealt with in the same professional manner. ... Citizen boards rely on the advice and direction of staff."

But the pesticide board, born of scandal after Virginia's lax regulation resulted in two people's deaths and countless exterminator scams, was given unusual power, its advocates say. It can direct the Office of Pesticide Services to investigate issues brought before the board, with or without VDACS' blessing, using the state's Pesticide Control Fund, revenue generated by industry fees and dedicated solely to implement the reforms in the Pesticide Control Act.

"At the staff level, in terms of execution, the staff is professional and is going to do their jobs," Gilliam, the board's first chairman, said. "I doubt that will be affected.

"Where an independent board is important is when you get a need for some regulatory action that tips one segment of society against another, one segment against another segment."

That surely will be lost in the governor's reorganization plan, poised for passage in the General Assembly.

Wayne Surles, program manager of the Office of Pesticide Services from 2004 to 2008, is dismayed by that prospect.

Surles spent a career in the pesticide industry, as a chemist and eventually an executive, before coming out of retirement to take over management of the professional staff in the Office of Pesticide Services, under the direction of a citizen board.

"I thought, this will be great. Virginia is really progressive."

He is hardly anti-industry, but believes strongly in having "checks and balances to ensure the environment is being carefully examined."

Yet during his tenure, "I was constantly told that I worked for the Department of Agriculture and agriculture had to be my first priority."

And that, Surles says, was not the intent of the 1989 law.

"They wanted a conscience imposed on the Agriculture Department."

There has been a long power struggle, he and other retirees maintain. And his own experience highlights difficulties inherent in setting up a citizen board to operate independently of the government bureaucracy, he conceded.

He was hired by the commissioner of agriculture; someone in the Agriculture Department signed his paycheck. He could not ignore pressure from that quarter.

Yet, he said, "I think it is a very healthy debate."

If the governor wants to streamline government by dissolving the independent pesticide board, he said, "I'm not opposed to putting it into DEQ," the Department of Environmental Quality. "I am opposed to placing it in the hands of agriculture," a vested interest group.

It's ironic, he said, that this year is the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the book that set the environmental movement in motion.

"She said we must be aware of what we are doing to our environment and we must be good stewards of our environment.

"It'd be quite a step back for Virginia to take a step back from managing pesticides."

He doesn't think that is McDonnell's intent, but it could be his legacy.

Strother is on the editorial board of The Roanoke Times.

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