October 19, 2007

Suterra petitions judge again to seal record

J.M. BROWN
SENTINEL STAFF WRITER

The maker of controversial pesticides state agricultural officials want to spray over parts of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties has made a second attempt to seal court documents detailing the ingredients of its products.

Late Wednesday, Suterra LLC, creator of the CheckMate pesticide used to steer the crop-eating light brown apple moth off course, filed a second motion asking Monterey County Judge Robert A. O'Farrell to close records because trade secrets are at stake. O'Farrell did not issue an immediate ruling Thursday.

O'Farrell ruled Tuesday on Suterra's first attempt to seal the records, saying he did not have authority to cut off public access to documents because Suterra was not a party to the ongoing lawsuit seeking to stop the spraying in Monterey County. The Carmel-based Helping Our Peninsula's Environment, or HOPE, is seeking to ban the spraying, saying that nearly 100 Monterey County residents reported respiratory problems after spraying began last month.

However, at the end of his order Tuesday, O'Farrell invited Suterra to provide proof that it had a stake in the lawsuit. The full text of Suterra's latest motion was not immediately available Thursday, but a portion of it obtained by the Sentinel simply claims state law does not preclude third parties from making arguments.

An attorney for Suterra did not immediately return a message seeking comment late Thursday.

In response to Suterra's second bid for secrecy, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Monterey County Weekly filed a motion Thursday to block the request, saying the public has the right to know the safety of the chemicals in the spray. Santa Cruz County officials have not sought a ban on the state's plans to spray here starting early next month.

In a pleading for the newspapers, attorneys said Suterra can't prove that cloaking the court's discourse about its product would expose trade secrets. Suterra sought the seal after Judge O'Farrell named an ingredient -- polymethylene polyphenyl isocyanate, or PPI -- in a court order granting HOPE a temporary ban on the spraying.

The Sentinel first published details about PPI late last month after the Environmental Protection Agency reported the chemical was part of the CheckMate compound -- information the agency later said was inaccurate. The Monterey County Weekly had published the name of the ingredient.

"The press did what the press is supposed to do: It asked the government for the ingredients in CheckMate in order to inform the public as to whether there are any health risks associated with the aerial spraying," James Chadwick, a San Francisco lawyer representing the Sentinel, wrote in the newspapers' motion.

Suterra also sought a temporary restraining order in Los Angeles Superior Court to keep the newspapers from publishing information about CheckMate's ingredients, again arguing that trade secrets were violated. A Los Angeles judge denied the request Tuesday.

Contact J.M. Brown at jbrown@santacruzsentinel.com or call 429-2410.