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Federal hand prevails in 'Medfly' extermination issue

Whether California agriculture can surmount its "Medfly" crisis should be known in the next few weeks. But the long-term consequences to the state's $14 billion-a- year farm industry and to the political career of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. may not be clear until late 1982.

The aerial spraying program in Santa Clara County, ordered by Governor Brown at the insistence of US Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, is expected to last about three months. But the Mediterranean fruit fly is a peristent and highly destructive pest, and some entomologists say it could take two years to eradicate it.

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Starting July 14 a 97-square-mile area stretching from Palo Alto to Sunnyvale will be sprayed at least six times, at 10-day intervals, with a solution containing the pesticide malathion.

Governor Brown, rejecting the advice of his own technical committee, on July 8 announced a control and eradication program that would have relied upon spraying malathion at ground level. What the governor called a "humanitarian" solution to Medfly infestation was prompted by an upwelling of citizens' protests against the spraying of malathion over an area containing some half a million residents. Many local officials, spokesmen for environmental groups, and some researchers with doubts about the long-term effects of the chemical argued against aerial spraying.

No one has missed the irony of the political situation: the secretary of agriculture for Republican President Reagan -- whom Democrat Brown succeeded as governor of California -- using the power of the federal bureaucracy to make Brown change his policy. It was the threat of the imposition of Washington's iron-fisted authority to virtually shut down California's marketing of fruits and vegetables to other states -- and this from the administration of a conservative President who has vowed to "get government off people's backs" and let states make their own decisions.

Secretary Block threatened to block shipment of unfumigated produce from California unless a spraying program was immediately started. The farm industry contends the state has the ability to fumigate only about 1 percent of the fruits and vegetables it ships.

Block, himself, was under heavy pressure from officials in other fruit and vegetable producing states which have been battling the Medfly for years (since about 1929). States like Florida and Texas use aerial spraying with malathion to control fruit fly outbreaks.

Proponents of the spraying program also pointed out that consumers all over the country would be adversely affected if California produce became unavailable.

The agriculture secretary named his deputy, former California agriculture director Richard Lyng, to head a 50-member task force to monitor the Medfly eradication efforts.

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Governor Brown, after a telephone conversation with presidential counsel Edwin Meese III, charged an effort to "sabotage" his own Medfly program was "coming directly out of the White House." But the governor faced some "sabotage" at home: The state Senate voted 29 to 0 to order the state Department of Food and Agriculture to begin aerial spraying of the Santa Clara Valley. And although the state Assembly is in recess, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown was ready to reconvene the representatives -- with another overwhelming "yes" vote on spraying almost certain.

City councils of several communities attempted to get restraining orders to halt the aerial spraying until a hearing could be held on the health effects of the pesticide. One such attempt by the City of San Jose was turned down and another suit launched by several other cities was still pending.

The Reagan administration's action at least saved Governor Brown the embarrassment of a confrontation with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Meanwhile, the Medfly furor was muting the impact of another development perhaps more directly related to Brown's political fortunes. The California Fair Political Practices Commission issued a report in which it charged some aides of the governor impeded its probe of alleged misuse of a state computer for political purposes.

The commission -- established in 1974 as the result of a referendum pushed by Jerry Brown, then California's secretary of state -- spent six months trying to find out if the governor's staff used a state-leased computer to compile political mailing lists and failed to report the activity or reimburse the state. Although it has closed the case without any finding of wrongdoing, the commission urged state's attorneys to open criminal investigations into the conduct of some Brown staffers.

The Legislature is looking into whether the Brown staff's activities constituted misuse of government funds.

Brown declined to comment on the computer matter in the heat of the Medfly crisis. But the governor -- whose conduct as a state official has been free of any hint of scandal -- soon will have turn his attention to the matter, which some of his critics already are labeling a "little Watergate."

Whether or not it touches him personally, any finding of misconduct could be an issue in Brown's expected 1982 bid for the US Senate seat held by Republican S. I. Hayakawa.

Reaction to the Reagan administration's intervention and Brown's turnabout on the Medfly issue has been predictable:

Robert W. Long, president of the Council of California Growers, said, "We are gratified that the governor took this action."

Ann Smith, director of the Peninsula Conservation Center in Palo Alto, said "We feel that a human population should not be sprayed for agricultural reasons."

Some residents, especially pregnant women and families with small children, plan to leave their areas during the early morning hours when helicopters will drop the pesticides.

The emotional reaction of many area residents to the possible dangers of malathion raised questions that will come up elsewhere in the US in similar situations: Are people being unduly alarmed about the effects of pesticides and other chemicals, and should governments adopt "no risk" policies in such cases? Should substances be banned if there is a shred of doubt about short-term or long-term effects?

In the present case, Governor Brown did not actually ban aerial spraying of malathion. Trying to avoid it by substituting other methods, Brown said that if his solution weren't quickly effective, he'd probably order aerial spraying.

Some critics on both sides of this issue say Brown was "indecisive," a label politicians -- especially those with presidential ambit ions -- abhor.

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