Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Barrage of complaints about drift of dicamba herbicide overwhelm state agencies that probe pesticide damage

State agencies responsible for investigating pesticide-misuse reports have been overwhelmed by complaints about the herbicide dicamba for the past three years, and many are asking the Environmental Protection Agency for help, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Dicamba is notorious for drifting into nearby fields, damaging crops that aren't genetically engineered to be resistant to it. It was once sprayed only before crops sprouted, but in 2016 EPA allowed farmers to spray it on genetically modified soybean plants. Then came a large increase in complaints from farmers who say their non-GMO crops were damaged, Charles reports.

State agencies have to investigate each complaint of pesticide drift and decide whether it happened because someone broke the law, "but many have struggled to keep up," Charles reports. "In Illinois, the number of complaints soared from about 120 in the pre-dicamba era to more than 700 in 2019. In Indiana, it went from about 60 to 200. Meanwhile, because they're fully occupied with dicamba complaints, inspectors don't have time for all their other work, such as routine inspections of pesticide use at schools, golf courses or businesses."

The complaints aren't likely going away any time soon. Several states have banned or restricted dicamba use over the past few years, but in November of 2018 EPA extended its approval through 2020. "The agency decided the problems could be addressed with a few new restrictions on how and where dicamba can be sprayed, along with more training for people who use it," Charles reports. 

However, dicamba complaints have continued to increase, and where they have decreased, there is evidence that most people aren't filing complaints because they don't think it will do any good, Charles reports.

The states' heavy workload has resulted in high staff turnover. In the past year and a half, all but one of Missouri's eight pesticide inspectors left their jobs, Charles reports. And, frustratingly, EPA may not be paying much attention to the state reports anyway. The EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs stopped asking for routine updates on state regulators' injury reports last year.

The herbicide is under increased scrutiny right now as dicamba makers Bayer (which bought the originator Monsanto) and BASF face allegations in a lawsuit that they deliberately sold a product known to hurt non-resistant crops in order to increase their sales. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has an in-depth package on the trial.

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