WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Environmental Protection Agency has abandoned plans to roll back a set of protections for farmworkers, including a proposal to ease Obama-era regulations requiring anyone working with dangerous pesticides to be at least 18 years old.
Passed in 2015, the rules became a target of the EPA a year after President Trump’s election. The agency announced in late 2017 that it was reconsidering the minimum age requirements, opening the door to the possibility that it might lower the age limit or do away with it entirely.
The agency cited as justification an executive order signed by the president calling for “reducing regulation and controlling regulatory costs.”
But the EPA said recently that the effort to scale back those environmental and health regulations would not go forward, disappointing industry groups and pleasantly surprising environmental and farmworker advocacy groups.
“These are common-sense protections,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of United Farm Workers. “There’s no good reason to say someone under 18 should be handling toxic pesticides.”
In an undated recent letter sent to Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he was withdrawing proposals to change the rules.
Wheeler’s letter did not offer an explanation for the reversal. It arrived just as the committee was preparing to vote on the nominations of three EPA officials, prompting speculation that the agency had agreed to leave the regulations in place in exchange for senators’ support.
Wheeler is slated to appear before the committee this week for his own confirmation to lead the EPA on a permanent basis.
In a written statement, Carper said he had fought for the changes.
“Over the past few months, I have raised serious concerns regarding many of the administration’s harmful environmental policies, and, as a result, EPA and [the president’s Council on Environmental Quality] have made specific commitments to me with respect to some of the most egregious ones,” he said.
Introduced during Scott Pruitt’s tumultuous tenure as head of the EPA, the proposed changes also took aim at rules that give farmworkers the right to find out from employers what pesticides they had been exposed to. They can do this on their own or through a third party, such as a lawyer.
Another regulation sets limitations on where pesticides can be used, preventing workers’ direct contact with toxic chemicals.
The rules did not sit well with industry groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Assn. of State Departments of Agriculture, which argued that they were unfair to farmers and exposed them to lawsuits from environmental organizations.
Paul Schlegel, the federation’s managing director of public policy, said the group had hoped the EPA would repeal some of these rules. “We would have liked to have seen them go forward with that,” he said.
The federation did not take a position on whether anyone under the age of 18 should be able to work with pesticides, he said. However, it would prefer that the question of age limits be left to states to decide.
Though some states have stronger protections for farmworkers than the EPA requires, Nicholson, of the farmworkers’ union, said the regulations put in place under the Obama administration are important because they set the national standard.
“We have a saying that the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields,” Nicholson said. “However we need to have laws on the books so we can have aspirational goals to hold growers accountable. Otherwise, it’s crazy out there.”