Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- California farmers could face delays in getting pesticides from foreign manufacturers because of the partial government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday.
Ninety-three percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's workforce has been furloughed, including every inspector in California, said Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the agency. Because EPA inspectors have been furloughed since Oct. 1, the pesticides are stuck in foreign vessels, waiting to be inspected and cleared for unloading and distribution within the U.S.
"We've heard from California agriculture that processing plants could close down, jobs will the lost and the tools necessary to protect their crops would not be available," the California Democrat told reporters.
The EPA is unable to fulfill its larger mission because Republicans refuse to negotiate a shutdown-ending deal or raise the federal debt limit unless Democrats agree to rework the 2010 health care-reform law, Boxer said.
She urged House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to drop his demands and work with Democrats to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling to avoid damaging the nation's credit rating and international standing.
"The American people count on EPA to ensure a safe and healthy environment," she said. "But because of the shutdown the EPA cannot verify that the air we breathe and the water that we drink meet federal standards."
Republicans say it's Democrats who are being stubborn by refusing to discuss changes to the health-care law known as Obamacare, which passed with no GOP support in 2010 but was upheld by the Supreme Court last year.
After President Barack Obama said Tuesday he's willing to discuss policy differences with the GOP after they fund the government and approve a hike in the debt ceiling, Boehner responded, "Refusing to negotiate is an untenable position."
"It's time for the president to stop talking to the cameras, and start a conversation with Republicans on a path forward on the debt limit, government funding, and protecting all Americans from his disaster of a health care law," Boehner said.
It's unclear how many pounds of foreign-made pesticides are sitting in ships off the California coast, waiting to be approved for entry.
According to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, 619.3 million pounds of pesticides were sold in the state in 2011, but how much of that came from overseas was also unclear.
H.D. Palmer, deputy director of the California Department of Finance, said it's not clear if the suspension of EPA inspections is hurting the state's agriculture industry. Many growers probably still have pesticides that they bought before the shutdown.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, confirmed that the pesticide supply isn't running low yet. Most growers also don't use pesticides until February or March. However, California citrus growers are an exception. They're applying pesticides and herbicides made in the U.S. or abroad to their trees now in advance of the winter harvests, he said.
Pesticide distributors need to stock up on supplies soon. Processing plants that create the chemicals from imported raw materials also face shortages unless the EPA inspectors return to work soon, Nelsen said.
"The product's not coming in. It's not getting offloaded. It's not getting to the manufacturer for formulation or it's not getting into the channels of distribution," he said. "Having that sitting on ships offshore, that's going to get nerve-wracking by the end the year."
Pesticides arrive in powder or liquid form and are used directly on crops or to be formulated in U.S. plants to be used in pest-control products. Among the imported chemicals is imidicloprid, which is reformulated in the U.S. and used in irrigation systems to help citrus crops repel the Asian citrus psyllid.
EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said the agency receives about 80 "notices of arrival" every day from companies seeking to import pesticides. The importers range from small firms to multinational corporations like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont.
"With EPA not reviewing or approving the notices, the products cannot legally be imported," Johnson wrote in an email. "Businesses will lose access to these products, and importers will have to either ship the products elsewhere, or incur charges for storing the products pending EPA return to operation."