Citrus pesticide banned by Florida agriculture officials


Florida agriculture officials on Wednesday announced that the insecticide aldicarb approved in January by the administration of President Donald Trump for use on citrus will remain banned in Florida.

The department cited a U. S. Environmental Protection Agency legal response last week to a petition filed in a federal appeals court in March by environmental groups. They were challenging the agency’s Jan. 12 approval a week before Trump left office.

In its April 12 filing at the Court of Appeals in Washington, D. C., the EPA acknowledged that it did not make a determination of the effects of aldicarb required under the Endangered Species Act. Some environmentalists said the agency had rushed the decision to beat Trump’s departure from office on Jan. 19.

While saying “I stand shoulder to shoulder with our citrus growers and we’re proud to support them,” Fried said in a news release Wednesday that aldicarb “is one of the world’s most toxic pesticides, and is banned in more than 100 countries.”

“The registrant’s application does not meet the requirements of state law, and we must therefore deny the registration of aldicarb for use in the State of Florida,” Fried said. “I look forward to working with our citrus growers, the EPA, and all partners to continue supporting Florida citrus in an environmentally conscious way.”

The EPA asked the court to remand the issue back to the agency without an immediate ban requested by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Working Group and the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Deborah Foote, Acting Chapter Director at Sierra Club Florida, said her group had asked the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to revoke the pesticide’s registration.

In the DACS announcement on Wednesday, Foote said, “Despite the Trump EPA approving its use on citrus, Commissioner Fried has taken a courageous stand by denying its use in Florida, sending a clear message that the health of our farmworkers, public health, child development, and environmental quality will not be compromised by approval of extremely hazardous chemicals in our state,”

The agency allowed the use of aldicarb on 100,000 acres for three growing seasons through April 2023.

Stephanie Parent, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the federal agency, through its approval, was protecting the chemical industry rather than the people and wildlife.

“EPA wants to allow this toxic pesticide back on the market in Florida where people, groundwater and surface water are all highly vulnerable to it, all while allowing the sale and use during its reassessment,” she said.

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and Florida Citrus Mutual, which have intervened in the lawsuit, told the court in a brief filed Tuesday that the citrus industry “is waging a losing battle” against the citrus greening disease and that its survival depends on aldicarb.

The disease, which is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid insect, has cost the industry $1 billion and 5,000 jobs per year, the associations said in their brief.

State Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), a citrus grower who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government, in January called aldicarb “a great silver bullet” in battling citrus greening.

“You put this stuff on in the spring and it can give you six months of control,” he said during a committee presentation on the status of the citrus industry. “That is huge as a cost saving.”

“It’s a great product — it can really help the industry a lot,” Albritton continued. “I would also be the first to say it is highly toxic.”

Unemployment and fraud in Florida: an absolute nightmare amid COVID 19


The unemployment crisis in Florida in 2020 pushed Florida’s jobless agency to enforce anti-fraud efforts that added months of delays and frustrations for those waiting for their benefits.

The victims of COVID 19, pregnant women, and those caring for children at home were denied benefits because they weren’t “able and available” for work under state law. Jobless Floridians with simple discrepancies on applications saw their claims locked, delaying payments by weeks or months.

Meagan Gross, 30, said that “They never told us to actually help people.” She also said, “It was how to send it to adjudication, how to lock their account due to fraud.”

As legislators struggle with the fallout from the state’s unemployment disaster, some are calling for a re-evaluation of the strict anti-fraud measures championed for years by Republican legislators and former Governor Rick Scott.

The state briefly relaxed some fraud prevention measures at the start of the pandemic. Department of Economic Opportunity employed strict anti-fraud rules, even if it meant delaying or denying payments to qualified Floridians, according to former employees, call center workers hired by the agency, and state lawmakers interviewed by the Herald/Times.

Caitlin Polidoro, 29, who worked at a call center from March until September, said that if a claimant gave identifying information that was in any way inconsistent with their application, she was required to hang up on them without saying why. That’s even if the person had spent as many as eight hours on hold, which was common during the worst parts of the unemployment crisis.

“If it was a Darryl Johnson Jr. and he put Darryl Johnson II on his application, we weren’t allowed to help them,” Polidoro said. “They only had one chance.”

State Senator Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said he wants a study of the ways the Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT, denied benefits to Floridians.

Pizzo said the state didn’t want pregnant women and COVID-19-positive people in public during the height of the pandemic, so denying them benefits did not make sense.

“Why would we use that as a disqualifier?” Pizzo said. “You just can’t defend against it.”

DeSantis says Florida will investigate unemployment website contract

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on May 4, 2020, that his inspector general will investigate the contract with Deloitte Consulting to produce the state’s unemployment website, which has failed repeatedly.

Governor Ron DeSantis said Florida’s tough approach on fraud was better than other states, though it has not produced any data for comparison.

“Some people were saying, ‘Hey, just pay everyone that comes through the door, and then try to figure it out on the back end who was eligible and who was not,’ ” he said. “You have like these Nigerian princes that are just looting some of these systems, so we didn’t want that to happen in Florida.

“I think that we maintained the integrity of it, and so that will end up saving the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby said state and federal laws required them to screen applicants whose personal situations might make them unable to work.

“If a claimant is not able and available to work because of personal reasons, then they do not meet this eligibility requirement,” Oglesby said.

In response to questions, the Department of Economic Opportunity did not say whether the fraud system was taken offline last year to speed up payments. Nor would it disclose how many referrals for the fraud it has made to law enforcement.

“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity takes Reemployment Assistance fraud seriously,” Oglesby said in a statement.

The state is also trying to get money back from some Floridians who obtained benefits. Erin Taylor, 40, of Newberry said she applied in late March last year because she was caring for her daughter, whose kindergarten classes were closed.

Despite disclosing that on her application, she received state and federal benefits until October, when she returned to work. But in February, the state informed her that she now owes $1,200.

The reason? She “was not actively seeking employment because of providing care for a family member due to the pandemic,” the Department of Economic Opportunity letter states.

She’s appealed the decision.

“I get they’re wanting to crack down on fraud,” Taylor said. But “it should not be this hard just to put food on the table and pay the bills.”

Call center workers said they wondered why people who seemed to most need the benefits weren’t allowed to receive them.

“If someone was hospitalized due to COVID, it was like, well, they weren’t able to work,” said Gross, the contractor who fielded calls. She said CONNECT’s frequent malfunctions made the situation worse.

“People with any kind of disability, or language barrier, or pregnancy or health issue were discriminated against.”

Polidoro said the department took a strict line on people who divulged personal details. Call center workers couldn’t ask if someone was pregnant, for example, but if it came up, they were required to flag their case, which would stop payments and lead to a lengthy arbitration process.

“They specifically told us in training to create these issues and to gather as much information as possible,” Polidoro said. “We weren’t allowed to tell them.”

Polidoro said she was required to flag people who did not have a working vehicle, were students, pregnant, sick, or home taking care of their children. Her recollection was confirmed by department training records.

“Obviously, no one had child care at one point, because everything was closed down,” she said. “It never made any sense to us. It was just what we were told to do.”