Tuolumne County officials are pushing back against a Jamestown man’s ongoing criticism of their response to an internal investigation in 2016 that found the county Roads Division sprayed certain pesticides too close to several unprotected wellheads as part of a program to reduce brush and weeds along roadsides.
County Administrator Craig Pedro sent a press release to local media outlets Tuesday afternoon in an email that stated Scott Fischler, whom isn’t identified by name, has “continually misrepresented and exaggerated the severity of this matter” while speaking at public meetings over the past several months.
Fischler responded that the county government is trying to discredit him in an act of self-preservation after being called out for violating private-property rights and public trust by negligently using pesticides that are prohibited for use within 100 feet of unprotected wellheads.
“It’s an absolute travesty that they would require a private citizen to be this tenacious in trying to get to the truth and then after two years for them to put out a press release to local media that has factual inaccuracies and omissions of fact,” he said.
The press release stated the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office fined the Roads Division $750 after conducting an investigation that determined it had sprayed the preemergent herbicides Pindar GT and Milestone less than 100 feet from an unprotected wellhead.
Such herbicides are intended to prevent the germination and growth of weeds. In 2004, state regulations went into effect that banned their use to protect wells from contamination because they are the primary pesticides found in groundwater due to agricultural use.
A total of five unprotected wellheads were identified in a spray area along a one-mile stretch Jacksonville Road. Water tested from one of the wells two months after the spraying showed no traces of the herbicides.
After the fine was paid, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and California Department of Pesticide Regulation determined that no further action was needed. The roads division acknowledged the “inadvertent error” and has taken steps to prevent it from happening again, the press release stated.
Pedro portrayed the matter as a “small roadside spraying incident.”
Fischler said the press release and Pedro left out the part where documents gathered as part of the investigation showed the roads division sprayed such preemergent herbicides along 19 county roads totaling 128 miles between March and April 2016.
According to the official Pesticide Episode Investigation Report prepared by Paul Rainey, a senior agricultural biologist for the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, a pest control adviser licensed by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation made a recommendation to the county in 2015 for the use of Milestone and Pindar GT in the spraying program but “failed to specifically note the possibility of damage by these pesticides when used within 100 feet of an unprotected wellhead.”
The county has not conducted any roadside spraying in the past two years since the investigation, which officials told Fischler was due to a lack of funding for the program that costs between $40,000 and $50,000 a year.
Pedro stated at the end of the press release that funding for the program to continue in spring 2019 is included in the proposed preliminary budget for the next fiscal year.
“That won’t matter when we have a fire bomb on the sides of our roads this summer because they failed to get a program together for the past two years,” Fischler said.
The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by Fischler in April 2016 after he observed signs of herbicide spraying along Jacksonville Road close to a well that served as his primary source of drinking water at the time.
Prior to filing the complaint, Fischler attended a public meeting at Jamestown Elementary School about dry and contaminated wells in the Quartz-Stent area and was given a guide compiled by the State Water Resources Control Board that warned against using pesticides and herbicides within 100 feet of unprotected wells.
“Everyone in the area at the time was conscious and aware of dry and toxic wells,” he said.
Fischler, 59, said he’s lived in the county for about three years and has a background in information technology and environmental consulting. He most recently founded and ran an online business doing social-media marketing for brands and TV networks.
After the death of his wife of 20 years, Lynly, to metastatic breast cancer eight years ago, Fischler wanted to do something meaningful in his life to honor her and provided seed funding to drill a well for a small village in Niger, Africa.
“For me, that made me a water warrior,” he said.
Following the conclusion of the investigation in November 2016, Fischler sent several emails to District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer between January and March 2017 attempting to broker a meeting between him and a property owner in Stent whose wells were affected.
After the meeting with Rodefer and the property owner never happened, Fischler began to regularly speak about the incident at Board of Supervisors meetings.
Fischler said his original goal was to see the county develop a roadside vegetation reduction program that doesn’t solely rely on herbicides and reduces the risk of fire from the accumulation of brush, but after exchanging emails with Rodefer it has turned into a mission about holding public officials accountable.
“An elected official has a responsibility to engage with constituents, hear their concerns and act on those concerns,” he said. “Supervisor Rodefer has failed to do this and is more interested in protecting the county’s interests rather than his own constituents.”
Rodefer asked county staff to prepare a presentation on the county’s roadside herbicide spraying program after Fischler spoke at a meeting earlier this year.
The board later decided to forego the public presentation and directed county staff to put out the press release clarifying what happened in March 2016, Rodefer said.
“The purpose of me asking for the presentation was to get the factual information out to the public,” Rodefer explained. “We decided the better way to do that was a formal press release because it gets to a lot more people who wouldn’t go to a public presentation at our board meeting.”
Rodefer said he considers the case closed because the county met all of the requirements of the law by investigating Fischler’s complaint, publishing the findings and paying the fines.
Fischler, however, has continued to make demands that Rodefer views as unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.
“He says the county’s not being responsive or transparent, but we have given him everything he’s asked for,” Rodefer said. “Quite frankly, in my view, he’s abusing the Public Records Act to the extent that he’s causing a lot of cost and staff time for the county.”
Rodefer said he believes that Fischler is “playing political games in an election season.”
Fischler responded that the election was more than a year away when he first reached out to Rodefer requesting to meet in January 2017.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.