California's Top Pesticide Regulator Resigns without Explanation

Farmworkers harvest strawberries in Carlsbad. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

California's chief pesticide regulator is leaving his post.

Brian Leahy, who has served as director of the state Department of Pesticide Regulation for the last seven years, announced his resignation in an email to agency staff last week, but stopped short of explaining why.

"It has been an incredible honor to serve as your director," Leahy said in the email. "During that time we addressed many challenging issues in pesticide regulation."

Leahy is among a number of top state officials who have stepped down since Gov. Jerry Brown left office earlier this month. A former attorney and organic rice farmer, Leahy was appointed director of the agency by Brown in 2012.

DPR regulates pesticide sales and the use of those chemicals, and creates rules that county agricultural commissioners are tasked with enforcing. The department is part of the state's Environmental Protection Agency. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently appointed Jared Blumenfeld as the new head of that agency.

“I want to thank Brian Leahy for his service at DPR," said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, who chairs the Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials (ESTM) Committee. "I appreciated working with Brian on public protection measures, such as making sure that the people who apply the most dangerous pesticides are properly licensed, and also increasing penalties on those who commit severe pesticide use violations.”

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Leahy's resignation, though, was welcomed by Paul Towers, an organizer with the Berkeley-based Pesticide Action Network, who thinks he did not go far enough to establish aggressive pesticide regulations that would better protect people in the fields.

"We had been optimistic for many years that Director Leahy would listen to California communities most directly impacted by hazardous pesticide use, and felt that he's fallen in that responsibility," Towers said.

"We're excited about the prospect of new and bold leadership at the department," Towers said, adding that he hopes the next director pushes for stricter rules on the use of pesticides near schools and specifically works to permanently ban chlorpyrifos, a chemical blamed for harming the brains of babies.

DPR in November did issue a set of restrictions on the use of chlorpyrifos, which included discontinuing its use on most crops. But those restrictions are only temporary.

Industry groups that represent California agricultural interests, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Association, declined to comment on the leadership change.

Teresa Marks, the agency's chief deputy director since 2016, has taken over as DPR's acting director. Marks formerly worked as a lead adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she specialized in oil and gas regulations.

"California faces many environmental challenges in the future, but rest assured that I and the rest of the team at DPR will continue to ensure that pesticides are regulated in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment," Marks wrote in a memo Monday to groups involved with the agency.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, confirmed that Leahy was no longer employed by the new administration but did not say why he had resigned.

Word of Leahy's resignation comes just days after the agency announced its plans to ramp up efforts to go after companies that violate pesticide licensing laws.

DPR sponsored legislation in the state Assembly last year that would have expanded the agency's enforcement power and increased penalties for agricultural companies that violate pesticide laws. The bill was ultimately rejected.

Alex Hall of KQED News contributed reporting to this story.

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