The director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation holds tremendous power. With the stroke of a pen, he or she can make or break a chemical company’s product and affect the health of millions of Californians.
All four directors in department history played a role in our Dark Side of the Strawberry investigation. And the three who have left the department have gone on to new, noteworthy roles. One now gets paid to help pesticide makers and growers navigate his old department. Another has a prominent position in state government. And another works for a chemical company.
Jim Wells: Consultant to Dow and strawberry growers
Wells was the first director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, taking on the post in 1991. And since leaving 15 years ago, he hasn’t strayed too far.
As a consultant, Wells is helping clients navigate the department he once ran. His clients have included two prominent players in our story, pesticide manufacturer Dow AgroSciences and the California Strawberry Commission. He shares an office with the commission in Sacramento. And he served on the committee that granted the exemptions to the ban on the strawberry pesticide methyl bromide.
In an interview, Wells said he never asks his former department for favors. “What you’re doing is presenting information. You’re answering questions, or you’re presenting information in your favor,” he said.
Wells does maintain ties with the department, though. He has regular 5 p.m. meetings with Chief Deputy Director Chris Reardon at the Sheraton Hotel, according to Reardon’s calendar. He also apparently got word that The Center for Investigative Reporting was requesting documents from the department. After we began requesting documents, he petitioned the department for copies of our requests. He later requested that the department give him the same documents that it had given us.
Wells was a top official when the pesticide regulation department pulled 1,3-Dichloropropene – or 1,3-D for short – from the California market because of health concerns. It was also his choice to put the product back in limited use in California fields five years later.
Paul Helliker: California state water official
Helliker ran the department from 1999 to 2004. Despite warnings from scientists, he created the loophole that allowed Dow and growers to avoid the strict rules that Wells had approved for 1,3-D use. Helliker said in an interview that his actions didn’t endanger Californians, though he also said he can’t remember many of the details – like whether state scientists had disagreed with his decision to loosen restrictions on 1,3-D. (They did, records show.)
Helliker previously had worked at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today, he continues to have a key role in big issues in Sacramento. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him deputy director of Delta and statewide water management at the California Department of Water Resources.
Mary-Ann Warmerdam: Regulatory affairs leader for The Clorox Co.
During Warmerdam’s tenure, from 2004 to 2011, the pesticide regulation department greatly expanded the loophole Helliker had created. She also got heat for her decisions on another controversial strawberry pesticide.
In early 2010, California strawberry growers were one step away from finally getting the elusive replacement to their pesticide of choice, the banned methyl bromide. Throngs of scientists, including a group of Nobel Prize winners, had warned that the new chemical – methyl iodide – would put farmworkers and residents at serious health risk.
The state’s in-house scientists agreed. But Warmerdam dismissed her scientists’ analysis as excessive in internal communications. She said the pesticide manufacturer might find the safeguards “unacceptable, due to economic viability,” according to internal documents later released under court order. Two weeks later, she gave the chemical the green light.
Despite California’s approval of methyl iodide, few growers ended up using it. Environmental and farmworker groups sued, arguing that the Department of Pesticide Regulation had broken state law in approving the chemical. With a judge signaling his intent to rule against the department, the manufacturer suddenly pulled methyl iodide from the market.
Warmerdam left the department to work for The Clorox Co. She declined to comment for our story, citing company policy.
This story was copy edited by Stephanie Rice.