By Miriam Raftery
April 7, 2012 (San Diego)--On Wednesday, the San Diego County supervisors were asked to receive a report from Jack Miller, Director of San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health. The report concerns a new county-wide ordinance aimed to reduce the nuisance level of eye gnats produced by two large organic farms in Jacumba and S. Escondido.
The plan was developed by the Eye Gnat Intervention Working Group (or EGIWG) made up of the farmers from both farms, representatives of the impacted communities, the Farm Bureau and various county officials. It depends initially on voluntary abatement measures by the farmer, and then mandatory if the voluntary approach does not work. In worst case scenario, the ordinance allows for spraying of pesticides on farms but only if the farm owners were either unable to reduce the eye gnat populations to a tolerable level, or refused to implement recommended gnat abatement cultural farming practices. This worst case scenario was the focus of the speakers that were there to urge a vote against the ordinance.
Farm supporters state that organic farms cannot use conventional pesticides and maintain their organic status. Communities say they have suffered quality of life impact, decrease in property values and increased health issues because of the swarms of eye gnats these two farms have generated.
Bill Brammer of Be Wise Ranch, the S. Escondido organic farm, is now on record as being against the ordinance although he was part of the EGIWG group responsible for its writing.
“I am very worried that this ordinance threatens my livelihood. I spent 25 years of my life building this business and have loyal employees and customers who depend upon my farm. I am certainly sympathetic to the neighbors’ concerns. My goal is to cooperate with the communities to control the eye gnat situation.”
Mr. Brammer has hired a San Diego PR firm to get his message to the public. His team of attorneys calls the ordinance “overly punitive and unnecessary” and has exercised legal means to stop the ordinance from being presented by claiming it requires a CEQA analysis. San Diego County Counsel concurred, and one is underway.
There were 2,000 public comments received on the proposed ordinance. 1900 were in opposition to the ordinance. Of these 1200 were computer generated comment letters.
Supporters of organic farms are worried that they will not have access to fresh organic produce, that the worst case scenario of pesticide spraying would allow dangerous cancer causing pesticides to leach into local groundwater, and that the ordinance could lead to spraying of pesticides on all organic farms. They urged supervisors to find alternatives to spraying.
“If the Director decides to force the use of pesticides on the farm, a major food source for over 2,800 San Diego families would be effectively shut down,” said Sherry Meyer, resident of Forest Ranch. “It does not matter if pesticides are just used on the buffer crops, as they will leach into our ground water.”
Many spoke passionately about their concerns during the meeting. Some stated that since the eye gnats were not a causative source of disease, eye gnats should not be classified as vectors.
Nan Stearman, organic blogger, long-time supporter of Be Wise and member of the EGIWG task force, questioned whether eye gnats should be considered a vector since they were not proven to cause human disease. She stated that Mr. Bethke, entomologist and farm advisor, said during the ordinance development process that it was an “urban myth” that eye gnats transmit disease.
She also had this to say regarding complaints from the residents of Escondido, “We need to acknowledge that the majority of the Escondido residents impacted by the eye gnats live on the edge of an agricultural preserve that predates development by over 40 years. They chose to live there. If they expect no impact from farming operations it is just not realistic.”
Others have a different take on whether eye gnats can be a disease vector. According to Jack Miller, Director of Environmental Health, “Research is inconclusive that they cause disease.” Other research implicates them in the spread of pink eye and other bacterial infections.
“We just do not know enough about the relationship between eye gnats and disease”, said Danielle Cook, one of the presenters from Jacumba. “While there may not be scientific proof (yet) that our particular type of eye gnat is a causative agent of human disease, there are also no scientific studies proving they are NOT. This is because of a severe lack of any kind of disease study on our eye gnats much less any studies on how they impact the health of human subjects.
What has been proven is that eye gnats in other areas are causative agents for disease. In Thailand they cause a nasty disease called Yaws. We also know our eye gnats do feed on pus and wounds and facilitate eye infections in humans and animals. It is just a matter of time until a local child loses their eye because of an infection started by rubbing their eyes to get relief from the eye gnats.” Cook was a community representative on EGIWG and also one of three Jacumba residents that spoke out against the ordinance in its present form.
Cook reminded the county that eye gnats are classified as vectors in state code and were only removed from the county code in 2009. She recommended that the county realign with state code so money would be available immediately for research. She suggested this could be done while the DEH was doing the CEQA analysis for the proposed ordinance.
County Supervisors were stunned that the county ordinance had been changed. Supervisor Pamela Slater Price commented that she was “extremely disturbed” to find out that the county ordinance was rewritten so eye gnats were no longer considered vectors as they clearly are in State Code. She termed this action as a “self-inflicted wound by the county.”
All agreed that eye gnats needed to be reclassified as a vector.
Bill Pape, another Jacumba presenter, gave testimony about why collar traps are a poor method for evaluating nuisance. He presented an alternative netting method developed by Dr. Mir Mulla, world’s authority on eye gnats. The Jacumba residents are asking that this technique be one of the nuisance abatement measurement tools included in the official plan.
The S. Escondido representatives all spoke in favor of the ordinance.
David Jenkins spoke of the health impacts of eye gnats on his wife. “My wife has MS and the doctor has told her she needs to be outside and in the sunshine. She cannot do so with the eye gnats. Quality of life has been lost to her.”
Susan Allen, President of the Sonata Homeowners Board, talked about the devastating impact that the eye gnats have had on real estate values since realtors now have to disclose that there is an insect problem. In reference to a previous speaker’s presentation on how to measure nuisance levels she said, “The removal of the eye gnat disclosure requirement on realtors would be a good measurement of nuisance abatement!”
Dr. Larry Michels questioned Mr Brammer’s true motives for his comments about voluntary compliance as quoted in a recent press release. “This well timed press release by Be Wise Ranch tries to show they are doing everything they can voluntarily so there is no need for an ordinance. If Mr. Brammer really wants to cooperate, than why doesn’t he allow Mr. Bethke to release the data gathered on his farm and the report on recommended mitigation efforts? So far we have seen nothing.”
Among the proposed new cultural farming practices are the construction of walls around the farm perimeter, installation of collar traps, and elimination of the practice of turning fresh organic matter into the soil after harvest. Both farms have started taking some steps voluntarily.
In San Diego County, only two of the nearly 350 organic farms are causing community complaints about eye gnats, Miller said.
All the Supervisors present agreed that the county needs more organic farms not less. However, all agreed also they needed to take responsibility for abating the eye gnats.
Supervisor Slater-Price stated “I am 100% in favor of organic and am a user of organic products. I totally support the mission. It is important that organic farms continue and expand. However, what concerns me here is being a good neighbor.”
Supervisor Ron Roberts expressed concerns about the communities and that best practices might not be enough to achieve relief. “I have experienced these flies and couldn’t believe the situation people in the communities have to tolerate.” Roberts likened the use of collar traps to fix the situation to that of a pollution “fix” proposed by an individual who came before an air pollution board Roberts chaired. The individual recommended that a gizmo be attached on the radiator of each car to try and capture the pollution coming from the car ahead. “We have to deal with the source” said Roberts after the laughter died down, “I want to see a performance driven evaluation. I don’t want to hear how many gnats the traps are catching, I want to know what is still getting out there into the public.”
Supervisor Cox stated “we have more work to do. I applaud the efforts of Be Wise Ranch but I wish more effort had gone into resolving the issue a little earlier.” He went on to praise organic farms and spoke of their contributions to the San Diego economy. However, he then stated “But with that comes responsibility to mitigate impact on neighbors.”
Supervisor Jacob chimed in, “In my opinion, an ordinance is absolutely necessary to make sure that the organic farms are good neighbors,” Supervisor Slater Price agreed.
In addition to making eye gnats a vector again, the supervisors also voted to make the Eye Gnat Abatement Appeals Board which is currently part of the proposed ordinance, operate top down like the Fly Abatement Appeals Board. This will insure that Jack Miller, in his current role of Director of the Department of Environmental Health, assumes responsibility for final decision making in case of worst case scenario and not the appointed eye gnat board members. They will continue to serve in an advisory capacity.
Miller said if further environmental review is necessary beyond the CEQA analysis, it could begin next month. In that case, the earliest they would be ready to present a revised plan to the Board of Supervisors would be in July.
The vote was 4-0. Supervisor Bill Horn, who owns an organic farm in Valley Center, recused himself.