April 22, 2001 11:00 pm

By James Sinks

Capitol Correspondent

SALEM It was billed as a landmark compromise that would let researchers and the public discover for the first time what herbicides and pesticides were being applied across the states landscape and in what quantities.

Oregon would join California and New York as the only states to require agricultural chemical use reporting but Oregons law would go even further because it also required details about application in urban areas in addition to farms and forests.

But two years after the 1999 state Legislature passed the chemical right-to-know package, the future of the program looks uncertain and cracks are appearing in the fragile alliance that pieced it together.

Key lawmakers and the pesticide industry are questioning the $3.5 million price tag of the database and surveying system proposed by the Department of Agriculture, and a key legislative budget subcommittee has virtually eliminating all funding for the program by earmarking just a dollar for the program.

And that has environmental advocates steamed at what they perceive as an industry-driven attempt to stall or undermine the program by starving it of money.

A lot of legislators in Salem supported this in good faith and expect it to be implemented the way it was written, and anything less is a slap in the face to all the people in the state who supported this program, said Laura Weiss, pesticide and toxic coordinator for the Oregon Environmental Council.

Environmentalists have met with the agriculture agency director to express their frustration.

Aimee Code of the Eugene-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides said advocates were pleased with the tenor of that conversation but are still considering all options if the system isnt in place to begin collecting data as scheduled on Jan. 1.

Options include a lawsuit or even a new ballot initiative, she said.

A proposed ballot initiative in 1999, later withdrawn, helped convince the industry to negotiate the Pesticide Right-to-Know law.

The governors office has taken notice. Chris Dearth, who is monitoring progress of the funding for the pesticide program, said Friday the governor isnt about to approve a budget that only provides for a half-baked reporting system.

I like to ascribe the best motives to people, but we also are hearing the concerns loud and clear, he said.

Publicly, the pesticide debate is about what system should be put into place, how much it should cost, and where the money should come from.

But there is a resistance to forcing chemical users to report their use to the government.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said publicizing what chemicals are used in a particular watershed, especially where farmers need to resort to herbicides to kill invasive weeds, will result in unfair criticism.

In the end, lawmakers will fund some sort of system, he said. People will want to talk more about the issue, but it doesnt mean were walking away from the agreement.

Terry Witt, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, which lobbies for agricultural chemical users, said the industry isnt certain if the system would be cost-effective. Under the proposal, chemical users would pay fees to fund half the cost of the program.

Industry lobbyists have said the state shouldnt spend $3.5 million over two years for a program a California company could supply for $1 million, and that reported gap helped convince lawmakers to drop the funding.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Hillsboro, the chairman of the budget-drafting subcommittee that made the reduction, said the move was preliminary and that lawmakers could reinstate funding later. Environmental groups cried foul and issued a press release accusing lawmakers of undercutting the law.

Hill said the groups reaction and pressure is unwarranted. The Legislature is facing a budget that falls more than $600 million short of maintaining existing programs and pay raises for state workers.

At the behest of lawmakers, the Department of Agriculture is asking several private sector firms to estimate how much they would charge to run the Oregon system. The responses are due back in mid-May.

Witt said hes more comfortable now with Oregons $3.5 million figure after research showed that the California program actually costs a total of $20 million a year and the New York program costs $7 million a year.

Still, he thinks the state ought to stick with a go-slow approach.