By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City News Reporter

Residents of Santa Cruz will no longer see low-flying planes coating the area with chemicals. At least, not for the next several months.

On April 29, Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick ruled in favor of delaying the efforts to eradicate the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM) until a comprehensive environmental impact report is completed.

In his ruling, Burdick cited a failure by the attorneys of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to prove the moth posed an immediate threat to the state of California.

An emergency exemption, usually reserved for forest fires and floods, was granted to the department to begin aerial spraying of pesticides in 2007.

Since then, the department has switched to using a biochemical compound designed to hinder moth breeding.

Third District Supervisor Neal Coonerty and other opponents of the spray believe the CDFA has exaggerated the threat posed by the moth species since the spraying began.

“The [CDFA] claimed the state legislature granted them an emergency exemption, which allowed spraying to start without considering the health effects and exploring alternatives,” Coonerty said. “But the legislature report has no language regarding an emergency.”

The court’s ruling will allow the appropriate authorities to investigate alternatives in eradication, or assess whether the moth needs to be eliminated at all, Coonerty said.

“This is really a war between trade interests and health interests,” Coonerty said. “The CDFA is justifying the hazardous use of chemicals by claiming our economy will be harmed by the moths, which just isn’t the case.”

Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the CDFA, said LBAM poses an environmental, as well as an agricultural, threat.

“In Australia and New Zealand, they call it the ‘light brown everything moth’ because it eats everything,” Lyle said. “LBAM is a threat to our crops, as well as our native plants.”

Lyle’s department will appeal Burdick’s ruling. Department members are confident the study will reveal that spraying poses no significant threat to plants, animals or humans.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding what is actually being sprayed,” Lyle said. “We are not using a pesticide. It is a duplicate of the female moth pheromone to confuse the male moths so they won’t be able to mate.”

While Lyle hopes the treatment will eradicate the moth population over the next few years, Dr. Daniel Harder, executive director of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, studied the LBAM in New Zealand and found that neither human efforts nor natural predation succeeded in eradicating the pest. Currently, Harder is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

In the past, Harder has said that New Zealanders think of LBAM as a low-level pest, as opposed to the Class A pest distinction under which the CDFA classifies it.

He has been unsuccessful in determining the components of the material being sprayed because its contents are considered to be a trade secret.

While the threat the moths may pose to the California agriculture economy is under debate, many Santa Cruz residents are convinced that the spray is detrimental to their health.

Steven Schnider, Environmental Health Division director for Santa Cruz County, said his department has been receiving calls from county residents complaining of health problems due to what many people still consider to be pesticides.

“Some people are more sensitive to pesticides than others,” Schnider said. “So there’s been a wide range in the severity of the complaints the Environmental Health Department has been receiving.”

Schnider encourages people to contact their physicians.

“If they are experiencing symptoms related to pesticides, their doctor will fill out a pesticide report,” Schnider said. “Those are the only reports the state views as valid claims to negative pesticide effects.”

The April 29 ruling will delay spraying until August 17, at which point Coonerty and others hope to have more evidence that will delay the spraying indefinitely.

“Plans need to slow down,” Coonerty said. “The study will determine a) what needs to get done to lower LBAM’s population, and b) how to do this without harming people.”