Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's going on with pest control in Texas?

Who wants to go to a committee meeting?  Especially if you're not on the committee? So if visitor counts are any indication, either things are pretty slow in Austin these days or the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee is a hot ticket right now. Most visitor chairs around the room were full at last month's meeting in the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) headquarters building.  

Texas Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee at work
Bad picture, I know.  But here's proof that
the SPCAC was hard at work last month
at the Texas Department of Agriculture
offices in Austin.
October 30 was the first followup meeting to last spring's lively session focused mostly on TDA Structural Pest Control Service's (SPCS) enforcement activity.  It's no secret that many in the industry feel that "the bad guys" (shady pest control companies operating under the radar and outside the rules in Texas) are not being sufficiently policed by regulators since the former Structural Pest Control Board merged with the Texas Department of Agriculture and formed the new SPCS division.  Based on what I heard at this meeting, I think the TDA has heard those complaints, and is responding, especially when it comes to fumigations.

Several inspection issues were brought up and solutions suggested at the meeting.  Pretreatment notifications have historically been a slow and cumbersome process with inspectors often not receiving word of a planned termite pretreatment until it was starting or already completed. According to official Mike Kelly, the department wants to bring this process online for increased speed and efficiency. This will allow pest control companies to go online to report a pretreatment appointment, and will allow inspectors to get electronic notifications of all planned pretreatments twice a day.  Current rules require operators to call, email or FAX notifications to the department. Last year there were 6,275 notices of termite pretreatment and 1,076 fumigation notices received...a lot of office time.  This change in procedures could save significant staff time handling notifications. Lots of smiles around the table!

Most of us were especially interested in a followup report from last spring's discussion of a May 2013  apparent violation by a fumigator that occurred in Boerne, TX and was detailed at that time by committee member Warren Remmey.  Mike Kelly of TDA explained some of the circumstances around the event including lack of evidence to verify that the fumigator was actually carrying gas cylinders when delivering tarps to a home in an unmarked truck (a violation of SPCS rules). After the meeting the inspector on the site, Kelly reported, the fumigator claimed that the reason no notification was filed was because a truck carrying gas was delayed with mechanical problems, and he didn't know when it would arrive--skeptical looks around the table. Nevertheless the tarps that were installed on the day of the incident remained in place over the house more than a week before the gas arrived and the SPCS was finally notified, and attended the fumigation. 

No citations were issued in the case (no smiles around the table), but Kelly reported that steps have been taken to improve training and enforcement of fumigators by their inspector staff.  For one thing, Larry Riggs of Ensystex, a former regulator, has agreed to help provide fumigation training for inspectors.  Dr. Rudy Scheffran at the University of Florida will also host four inspectors at his fumigation training school in Florida this year. TDA has also formed a task force to advise the agency on fumigation-related issues. Debbie Aguirre of Elite Exterminating, Corpus Christi, has been leading the group. Since the April 11 meeting, TDA has conducted 11 fumigation inspections.  The committee thanked Kelly and the staff for responding to concerns from the last meeting, especially the training initiatives for inspectors. The committee was smiling again.

After this Debbie Aguirre presented suggestions from the task force for changes to the structural fumigation requirements.  One of the major problems her team has identified is that companies often subcontract or sub-sub-contract fumigation jobs, and its not always clear who is the responsible party is when communicating instructions to the customer and when planning the job. TDA staff have agreed to review the fumigation committee suggestions and bring back legally suitable language for a second review by the SPCAC.  

Kelly also announced that TDA is planning to eliminate fees for CEU course sponsors.  Currently anyone organizing a CEU class must pay TDA a $48 fee for each CEU provided.  Kelly says the department has determined these fees were not necessary and will be eliminated.  I sensed CEU providers all over the state smiling at this one.

Also bringing smiles to all the PMPs on the committee was a proposal to change the long problematic rule on advertising.  A problem with this rule has been that the rule was written to require licensed companies to not use false or deceptive advertising. The current wording makes it difficult for the department to penalize unlicensed operators from making false or deceptive claims online or in newspaper.  The advertiser would have to be actually observed making a pest control treatment to be penalized under the existing rule.  Two new paragraphs will be added to the section expanding the rule to apply to anyone offering to perform pest control services. In addition all advertisements must include the official business name as listed on the business license. The committee objected to an additional requirement to include the business license number on all advertisements, and it was removed.  

Also in response to requests to provide more information about enforcement actions, Stephen Pahl introduced new staff members including new chief counsel Martina Berrera, a former prosecuting attorney and judge.  She has been with the department for two months and is eager to get to know the industry and work to address concerns. She replaces outgoing counsel David Gibson.   

The SPCS includes both "Program staff", including inspectors, and "Enforcement staff". Program staff are required by law to conduct 480 inspections of non-commercial applicators, 200 use observations of structural licensees, 950 commercial business inspections.  In addition they must inspect approximately 250 school districts each year.  Also program staff must respond to complaints (46 so far in FY2014). Not all violation cases investigated by program staff get turned over to enforcement.  In 2014, we learned, program staff forwarded 40 cases involving unlicensed activity to Enforcement. For schools with unlicensed activity a non-compliance advisory letter is usually sent without a fine.  For violations at commercial businesses and non-commercial locations, Enforcement may issue a Notice of Violation (NOV), a warning, or take no action (e.g., when a business has shut down or the complainant may not be willing to pursue the case).  

Numbers of consumer complaints (46) have decreased significantly this year from prior years (ave. 181 per year 2011-13).  Although the agency reports that the number of consumer complaints have been decreasing for the past 12 years, this year's large drop appears due largely due to the department no longer accepting consumer complaints about poor service or failure of a company to control pests. Now the only complaints accepted for investigations are those involving possible infractions of the rules or law. As I see it, this amounts to a significant change in policy, redirecting the agency away from  consumer advocacy, to being a law enforcement agency only.  These changes appear to be necessary given tighter budgets over the past several years.  Mostly blank faces on the committee.

Visitors who attend these committee meetings do get an opportunity to comment if they wish.  Don Ward left a comment from the Texas Pest Control Association suggesting that SPCS host a class for pest control office staffers to appraise them of what they can and can't say and do.  He also indicated TPCA support for the advertising changes. Bryan Springer with Bevis Pest Control, Houston, commented that with all the regulations and safety requirements in place, the safety record of professional fumigation is good.  Harvey West of Coastal Fumigators, Houston, encouraged SPCS to provide and train inspectors to carry fumigant gas measurement devices to ensure accurate dosing of commercial fumigations.  He also urged the department to do something to discourage the practice of allowing spot treatments for drywood termites to suffice for passing real estate transactions.  Spot treatments are notoriously unreliable for eliminating drywood termite infestations in homes.

The committee adjourned after approximately a three hour meeting.  Smiles all around. 

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