Dicamba Woes Drain State Agencies, Vex Companies

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By Tiffany Stecker

Cash-strapped state agriculture agencies are buckling under an increased workload due to the hundreds of herbicide damage complaints filed in 2017 and scuttling other priorities to fully investigate claims of crop injury.

More than 2,700 dicamba-related soybean injury complaints have been filed to date, according to the University of Missouri’s Integrated Pest Management program.

The complaints are a big setback for companies—Monsanto Co., BASF SE, and DowDupont—that introduced new versions of the herbicide for the first time this year to help farmers combat stubborn weeds that no longer die when sprayed with traditional herbicides.

Underfunded state pesticide regulatory agencies are also overwhelmed with the number of complaints they must process.

David Scott, pesticide program administrator with the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, doesn’t expect to wrap up his state’s 2017 investigations until well into 2018. Indiana has opened close to 130 investigations, a higher number than some states, but well below Arkansas’ nearly 1,000 investigations and Missouri’s 311.

“You stop doing worker protection, you stop doing product work, you stop doing golf course inspections, you stop doing school inspections,” Scott said at a Dec. 4 meeting of pesticide regulators at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs headquarters in Arlington, Va. “You basically stop doing anything and hope that you can respond to these things.”

‘Drop Everything’

The rising workload comes as states also prepare to fully implement a new rule to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. The implementation of the Obama administration’s 2015 Worker Protection Standard was already postponed by at least a year to allow states to prepare training materials.

Indiana is not the only state overwhelmed by the number of investigations, Cary Giguere, chairman of the State-FIFRA Issues Research and Evaluation Group, an organization that works to implement federal pesticide rules in states, said.

“You drop everything you routinely do and focus on those interests,” Giguere told Bloomberg Environment at the meeting.

Judy Glass, an official with the Kansas Department of Agriculture who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the four states in the EPA’s Region 7—Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska—said they are all facing budget issues, with staff shortages expected next year.

Region 7 states are looking into 640 dicamba damage cases, with about half of those in Missouri, Glass said.

Grant Money

In light of the increased workload, the EPA has been relaxing certain goals and requirements state agencies must meet to receive federal grant money, Tim Drake, South Carolina’s program manager at Clemson University’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, told Bloomberg Environment. The EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an effort to curb the number of damage claims in 2018, the EPA has changed the label instructions for the herbicides. Training to use the products is now mandatory, and applicators can only use the pesticides during a specific time period each day.

Several states have begun taking action. Arkansas is close to finalizing a rule that would ban dicamba spraying after Apr. 16, 2018, effectively prohibiting its use on soybean crops. Missouri and North Dakota have implemented their own restrictions, and Kansas may be the next state to act, Glass said.

New Rules Mandate Training

First developed and approved in the 1960s, dicamba is an effective weedkiller but notoriously volatile, meaning it quickly evaporates from a liquid droplet to gas and can travel thousands of feet to an unintended target.

Monsanto reformulated the herbicide to lower the volatility by 90 percent, and also developed genetically-engineered soybeans and cotton that can withstand the product when sprayed. Dupont makes a dicamba product with the same technology as Monsanto, and BASF also developed a new version of dicamba using different technology.

Despite these changes, many farmers complained that their neighbors’ use of the new weedkillers shriveled up non-engineered soybeans, as well as vegetable crops and trees. Monsanto and BASF say the damage is not due to volatility, but to farmers not using the pesticide properly. At least five lawsuits from farmers against the companies have been filed.

Full Compliance? ‘A Miracle’

Indiana has only processed about 25 of its complaints so far, Scott said, adding that he still hasn’t found any clues for how and why the pesticide moves away from its intended targets, making the investigations more challenging that usual.

It’s unlikely that all applicators will comply with the new EPA rules on applying the pesticides, he added.

“That would be a miracle,” Scott said, if all applicators followed the instructions.

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