Few of the 40 or so public officials gathering in a cozy auditorium last week for a half-day forum on pesticides were aware of the poisoned political air engulfing their seemingly benign gathering.

Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, in cooperation with the three state agencies most responsible for pesticide regulation, had invited a collection of state and county elected officials and policymakers" for a primer on Issues and Answers on Pesticides." The invitations promised a lively and stimulating discussion of a timely subject."

It was planned as a simple think-tank production, with folks wearing name tags, reading gray-bound background reports and listening to invited experts, including top guns from the state departments of Agriculture, Environmental Quality and Health Services.

But the liveliest conversations were taking place behind the scenes. Notably excluded from the forum were several of Arizona's most vocal and experienced environmentalists, and they were clamoring to know why they had been shut out of a meeting ostensibly intended to air all sides of pesticide issues.

At the last minute, conference planners scrambled to accommodate the pesticide activists. When all was said and done, however, the forum's primary accomplishment seemed to have been to further exacerbate relations between environmentalists, state regulatory agencies and agricultural groups.

The meeting was dominated by the government and the [pesticide] industry," says Michael Gregory, head of Arizona Toxics Information, who was initially invited to the meeting, then told not to show up and finally allowed to sit in as a resource person."

That a relatively low-profile conference could become such a lightning rod for environmentalist anger underscores how badly the activists feel they have been treated by the state.

For years, Gregory and other activists say, they have been routed in their efforts to tighten state laws concerning crop-dusting, use of carcinogenic toxins and consideration of nontoxic alternatives to chemical pesticides.

And for years, he says, periodic meetings and conferences have produced nothing more than the one held last week-a sanitized discussion of generalities that leads nowhere.

Very little was said to address the problem directly, the problem being that citizens are being exposed to toxic pesticides against their will," Gregory says.

Melody Baker, a longtime pesticide activist who was herself a victim of toxic poisoning, is more blunt: It was the biggest example of hypocrisy I've ever seen."

Baker was initially told she could not attend the conference, then was allowed to sit in if she promised to keep her mouth shut. Ultimately, after she complained enough, she was allowed to speak for several minutes near the meeting's end.

Debbie McQueen, another high-visibility pesticide activist, actually received a letter from Marc Lame, ombudsman at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, pointedly telling her not to show up at the conference, so she didn't.

I wasn't surprised to learn I wasn't invited, but I was kind of shocked to be sent a formal noninvitation," she says.

Lame and other conference planners, however, say there were no insidious motives involved in drawing up the guest list.

Because of limited time, Lame says, the agencies and the Morrison Institute decided to limit the number of speakers from both sides. One environmentalist-Kalee Kirschenbaum-and one farmer-Arnott Duncan-were invited to address the group.

While other pesticide activists were excluded, Lame says, so were lobbyists for the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and the state Farm Bureau.

It was purely a matter of logistics," Lame says. To have invited Melody [Baker] and other people to speak on the one side would have also required us to invite various farmer or commodity-group lobbyists to speak on the other side."

If the agenda was chock-full of speakers, Lame maintains, the public officials supposedly being educated about pesticides would have had little chance to ask questions.

You would not believe the politics of putting this thing together, the incredible pressure from outside interest groups to manipulate it," he says.

Well and good, says Gregory, but the constraints placed on the conference for the sake of logistics" effectively stopped those attending the conference from hearing many of the most pressing concerns of environmentalists.

Clearly they had a couple of token environmentalists there, which was part of the plan," he says. We were not able to bring all of the issues out. All of the issues were not on the table."


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David Pasztor