Dr. Robert S. Jackson, the state health commissioner, got the bad news from his morning paper: DBCP was back.
He read that the sterility-causing pesticide, so toxic that it was withdrawn from most uses in 1979, had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency last fall for emergency use in South Carolina's lush peach orchards.
Worse, without warning or consultation, the EPA had put Jackson in charge of seeing that the potent chemical was used safely. He felt blind-sided. He did not like DBCP, but he also did not have the money or personnel to do the job properly.
As it unfolded, the story became a classic of pesticide regulation: conflict and coziness between regulator and regulated; right hand of government ignoring left hand; politics, profit and public health. It had all of the standard elements of the constant grappling over agricultural chemicals.
South Carolina growers had argued that only DBCP could save them from the ring nematode, a tiny worm that attacks roots and kills peach trees. Without DBCP, they said, crop losses could hit $25 million in 1983 and bring ruin to the second-largest peach-producing state.
There was nothing very new about this. During the last two years, the EPA had granted hundreds of "emergency" exemptions sought by states, allowing farmers to cover crops on millions of acres with pest- and weed-killing chemicals otherwise deemed too dangerous or unproven for routine use. But the South Carolina case had more to it, including these elements:
* Clemson University, which doubles as the state's regulator under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), sought the EPA exemption on behalf of the growers. New Clemson research, aimed at showing that DBCP's dangers were overstated, was financed in part by Amvac Chemical Corp., the only U.S. firm now producing DBCP.
* Although Clemson, EPA and Amvac worked together on the exemption, Jackson and his Department of Health and Environmental Control--ultimately assigned by the U.S. environmental agency to supervise the DBCP applications--had no role in the decision-making.
* The state agriculture department was doing its best to encourage EPA approval of the permit. The department offices here also house the South Carolina Peach Council and Promotion Board, and it lends the council two state-paid employes to help farmers promote peaches.
* EPA scientists reviewing the Clemson application raised doubts about renewed use of DBCP, which had contaminated some water supplies in the state and caused widespread national alarm as a threat to human health. At the same time, six of South Carolina's eight members of Congress wrote nearly identical letters to EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch, warning of economic disaster if farmers could not use DBCP.
The EPA then approved the exemption, albeit with tight controls, and added a final political flourish to the package: it allowed Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who had opened his appeal to Gorsuch with a chummy "Dear Anne," to announce the decision to local newspapers.
Just as the decision was news to Jackson, it was news to Brett Bursey, head of the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop (GROW), a small environmental group here. Incensed, he and his allies went to court and, citing public health protection, won an injunction against use of DBCP. Case closed.
GROW's victory thwarted the peach industry, of course, but Bursey was not conciliatory. He was rankled about the closed-door approach to regulation and about Clemson's involvement in the case as regulator-researcher-permit applicant. And he was rankled about his after-the-fact discovery of the application.
"We learned about this after the public comment period had expired. Nobody knew about it," Bursey said. "The Federal Register is not read at the breakfast table . . . . Clemson's position was that everything was okay, but there's no way that DBCP can be applied safely. What's different between now and 1979 when this stuff was banned is that Anne Gorsuch and Ronald Reagan are different . . . . There's no new data."
Chances are that Bursey would not have learned about the DBCP exemption request in the Federal Register, anyway. Emergency requests are not printed in the register by the Environmental Protection Agency, nor do approvals routinely appear there.
The South Carolina episode reemphasized agricultural-chemical issues that have simmered for years: often-conflicting roles of regulators and researchers, links between university scientists and companies that support their research, farmers' claims that strong pesticides and herbicides are their only salvation.
And it happened to involve DBCP, one of the farmer's most potent chemical tools for waging war on field pests. It was used on dozens of varieties of crops for 25 years until serious questions about its public health effects were raised in the mid-1970s.
Dibromochloropropane, the chemical name for DBCP, went into extensive use on grapes and tree fruit in California in the 1950s. It quickly became popular with farmers in other areas, including South Carolina, for battling nematodes, microscopic pests that attack a plant's roots.
By 1977, more than 800,000 pounds of DBCP were being used here annually on about 300,000 acres of crops. Then it was discovered that male workers producing DBCP at plants in California, Alabama and Arkansas were sterile. Alarm bells rang in California, where the compound was banned.
It was banned despite protests of growers, who insisted that they faced economic disaster without DBCP. But the ban stuck and, by 1979, as more ominous data accumulated, the EPA decided to discontinue use of DBCP in the nation.
Then-Administrator Douglas M. Costle said documented male sterility and strong suspicions that DBCP caused cancer and chromosome damage in fetuses far outweighed its benefits to agriculture. He said DBCP must go. The agency and the companies negotiated its withdrawal from the mainland market. Only Hawaiian pineapple growers, after flexing an influential muscle at EPA, are allowed to use it.
But farmers, agriculture scientists and Amvac were unrelenting. Clemson's College of Agricultural Sciences produced data projecting major economic woe for the peach industry unless the ring nematode could be controlled. And Clemson's Dr. George E. Carter Jr., with money from Amvac, continued searching for ways to use DBCP safely.
Neither Carter nor Amvac President Glenn A. Wintemuth will disclose the extent of the company's financial support of the Clemson research. But Amvac's assistance helped Carter produce data that underpinned the university's request for EPA approval of DBCP.
Wintemuth said, "Our deal with them was that we were interested in the product only if it could be used safely . . . . We were governed by a business decision. We have done two projects with them to determine the suitability of using DBCP . . . . We sat down with EPA and asked what they would be satisfied with on soil tests and other points, and then we developed a protocol. We asked Clemson to become involved and out of that came the justification by EPA."
Carter's research maintained that DBCP could be used in the fall, well in advance of peach-tree blossoming in 1983, without leaving dangerous traces of the compound in the fruit. Although it refuses to make public Carter's study, the agency accepted his findings and granted the emergency exemption.
Carter said in an interview that he and others at Clemson were convinced of the economic threat posed by nematodes in the orchards, but that, "We were not on a crusade to get DBCP back on the market. Clemson would be the last to recommend anything hazardous to farmers and their families."
Amvac, meanwhile, was busy with its own work. Before EPA approval was granted, the company sent thousands of gallons of DBCP into South Carolina. Workshops were being set up for applicators. Selling at $24 a gallon, DBCP would have been used on about 20,000 acres of orchards at a cost to farmers of $1.5 million.
Carter added, "Clemson and the growers were very content to generate scientific data and give it to EPA and say, 'You have the responsibility of making a risk assessment.' We filled the data gaps, and there was no pressure from Clemson to get approval. We only asked for a decision in timely fashion. We felt EPA was well-qualified to make the decision."
Carter said he was "sensitive" to questions about Amvac's support of his work. "We could talk a long time on who should fund the research on agricultural chemicals," he said. "But if the EPA tried to fund research on all the data gaps, its budget would be as big as that of the Department of Defense . . . .
"Growers and environmentalists wouldn't stand still if companies presented data of their own . . . . We did all the work, wrote the report and sent it to EPA and Amvac. Whether Amvac would choose to use it is up to Amvac.
"I stand behind the scientific data 1,000 percent," he added. "I am a completely equal-opportunity accepter of grant money. We would accept money from The Washington Post, from GROW or the chemical companies. It is no-strings money."
While EPA was considering South Carolina's request, the California Department of Health Services published a study of deaths between 1970 and 1979 in Fresno County, where huge amounts of DBCP had been used.
State officials refused to claim a positive cause and effect, but the implications of their study were clear. Fresno Countians, whose drinking water was polluted by DBCP, had higher levels of stomach cancer and lymphoid leukemia.
Dr. John A. Todhunter, assistant administrator of EPA for pesticides and toxic substances, was unimpressed. In a meeting at Sacramento, he told western state farming officials that the study sounded "sexy" and "cute" but that it was scientifically deficient.
He rejected the idea of a federal study on the health impact of DBCP in water. Less than a month later, he approved the South Carolina emergency-use petition.
Todhunter denied in a recent interview that congressional pressure had affected the agency. He maintained that his agency's approval of DBCP was based on data indicating a low risk if strict controls were invoked and if it were applied in the fall.
"Our staff felt it probably would be more effective and that a single treatment would give more control than alternative products . . . . We put on controls, and we hadn't seen water contamination from DBCP in the Southeast."
None of this pleased the South Carolina health commissioner. Jackson was furious at the EPA's handling of the DBCP petition.
"EPA pulled a real tricky fast one," he said. "They okay it and then make us enforce it . . . . Our data confirms the presence of DBCP in ground water. It is heavy in some of our peach-growing areas.
"The EPA has reversed itself in 1 1/2 years. Suddenly they are ignoring their own ground water study in 1980-1981 and giving the state the right to do as it pleases. That's fine if the state has the resources, but we don't. By all logic, if you decimate the federal budget and take deregulation seriously, it can't help but create some of the very environmental problems we've worked so hard to prevent," he said.
Jackson also was disturbed by Clemson's link with Amvac. "University researchers survive on their ability to evaluate with credibility. It is a difficult relationship to put an ethical valuation on," he said, "but there is no way on earth I know of that you can assure the objectivity and integrity of a study when it is paid for by a company . . . . Companies hire the institutions and, as soon as the money goes there, it becomes to the researcher's advantage to tell them what they want to hear."
Ralph Lightstone, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Sacramento, was one of the leaders in 1970s efforts to cancel DBCP registration. He is not swayed by farmers' economic-threat arguments and is not persuaded that DBCP can be used safely.
"By 1979, when the national suspension hearings were held, we had two years of the California experience," he said. "Yields had gone up across the board and since then, yields have been up in every crop since the ban . . . . The experts were wrong on the nematodes' effect on yields. Most of those who projected disaster were people who got research money from industry."
California peach producers who fought to retain DBCP found themselves in a paradoxical situation by 1981. Not only had the nematodes not devastated their orchards, but the producers were also bulldozing hundreds of peach trees to avoid the overproduction that threatened their prices.
Larry Yonce of Johnston, S.C., a major grower and peach council president, added a personal postscript to the story. After the earlier DBCP scare, he put himself and his workers through sterility and cancer tests, all of which turned out negative, he said.
Farmers had helped fan the controversy. The National Peach Council, for example, accused the government of overreacting to the sterility reports. The council proposed in 1977 that elderly and young persons who did not want children could be recruited to handle DBCP.
Yonce remembered that, but he noted, too, that peach growers in his state were caught in an unusual bind. "We told Clemson that we needed control of the peach tree short-life problem, but not at the risk of anyone's health," he said. "The university advised that DBCP was the only thing available. We are caught in a crunch.
"We felt that Clemson, EPA and the agriculture department had done their part in showing this could be done safely. Now we are still faced with this: can the chemical be used safely? We rely on the scientists to tell us what is safe."
Why, Yonce was asked, were ring nematodes suddenly a problem? Had he and fellow peach growers become addicted to the chemicals? He thought for a while and answered: in the past, root stocks were more vigorous, land was not drained, orchards were cultivated more, and management techniques were different.
And then he touched on every farmer's dilemma:
"Chemicals were the miracle cure for agriculture a decade or two ago, but farmers now realize they have to manage the earth as a precious resource. Many are moving into integrated pest management using fewer chemicals , but it takes strong farm management. Most are moving toward that because of economics, and it will work. But I am not yet at a point that I can go to no-chemical farming."