Farmers Speak Out at the EPA: Atrazine is Safe, Effective, and Critical to Our Bottom Line

Friday, April 30, 2010 2 comments
WASHINGTON (April 28, 2010) -- Farm groups traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to voice support for atrazine before the third in a series of hearings being held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to re-review the critically-effective herbicide.


Among those testifying were Jere White, Chairman of the Triazine Network and director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association and Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association; Laura Knoth, the executive director of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association; and Richard Fawcett, of Fawcett Consulting, who shared his expertise in weed science and critical yield gains atrazine provides farmers.


Noting that atrazine has been more extensively studied than any other crop protection product and has continually been awarded a clean bill of health, Jere White commented that growers often ask him, “When is enough enough?”


It was only in 2006, after all, after an extensive 12-year review, that EPA concluded that the triazine herbicides, including atrazine, pose “no harm” to the general population, including women and infants. It wasn’t until “the New York Times and Huffington Post supplied their version of ‘peer review’ of an NRDC report to certain political appointees at EPA,” said White, that EPA hastily convened this un-necessary re-review.


White questioned whether this extraordinary break with standard EPA procedures violates FIFRA standards, and highlighted the enormous burden of material the independent scientists have been asked to digest in a relatively short period of time due to the compressed schedule. As White noted, “…though the average number of studies submitted for SAP review per session number around 15, EPA has generously provided you with 123.”

Given that scientific bodies around the world have determined that atrazine is safe to use, and extensive monitoring shows that levels in raw and finished water are steadily declining, White questioned the need for this EPA’s “politically driven second guessing.” He ended by expressing the hope that the high standards of scientific objectivity that enabled the EPA to register atrazine as safe in the past would continue to prevail at the agency.


Laura Knoth outlined the profoundly beneficial effects of atrazine to the environment, especially as a result of no-till and low-till agriculture. By 2008, Knoth noted, “atrazine was applied to 60 percent of conservation tillage and no-till corn acres.” Without such effective weed control, the result would be a massive increase in erosion, “estimated to be more than 300 billion pounds annually.” Sediment has been identified by both the USDA and by individual states as the leading source of water pollution in our nation today.


Atrazine-enabled no-till agriculture also reduces the use (and expense) of fossil fuels to power tractors for field cultivation and keeps crucial nutrients in the soil.


On top of the extraordinary environmental benefits, Richard Fawcett emphasized the critical importance of atrazine to farmers’ bottom line. Analysis of data from two different decades starting in the 80s and in the 90s, showed a very similar – and impressive – boost in yields in both eras. Average yield gains with atrazine from 1986 to 2005 in university field trials were 5.7 bushels per acre compared to alternative herbicides.


EPA itself has estimated that farming without atrazine would cost corn growers $28 an acre in reduced yields and higher costs for less effective substitutes.
The voice of the farm community was clear: atrazine is safe, it’s effective, it’s essential to the environment, and it’s critical to our bottom line. Sound science, sound economics, and sound environmental stewardship would all tell the EPA one thing – leave atrazine alone, so American farmers can get on with the business of feeding the world.

Let's hope atrazine lawsuits go away faster than asbestos

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 2 comments
4/18/2010 10:37 AM By Ed Murnane -Illinois Civil Justice League

While the Madison County asbestos meter continues to spin like some kind of hyper-active Las Vegas slot machine, there is a chance another one of the trial lawyer "get richer quicker" schemes from the "A" file may be handed a "get out of our court" card, which is similar to a "get out of jail free" card from Monopoly but much more significant.

Last Wednesday, Madison County Judge Barbara Crowder was scheduled to hear motions to dismiss several lawsuits against manufacturers and a retailer of atrazine, the second most important herbicide in Illinois.

Illinois, if you have forgotten, is a state that depends heavily on corn and other crop production for its economic vitality. Look out the car window in a few weeks and you'll start to see the miracle of Illinois crops breaking ground. Given the current state of the economy, it's a shame crops can't grow year-round, and in highway medians too. And maybe in the chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.

There are several aspects of major significance to the proceedings in Madison County.

First, it will be among the early major rulings by Judge Crowder who is taking over the docket of retiring Judge Daniel Stack. Stack has handled the massive asbestos docket in Madison County and while popular, respected and likeable, the number of asbestos cases filed in Madison County continues to grow and a sign that atrazine cases are being encouraged to follow along the "welcome" path would not be positive.

Second, the ruling could serve as another sign that the good old boys club continues to thrive in Madison County. While not based in Madison County, plaintiff's attorney Stephen Tillery of St. Louis is one of many Southwestern Illinois/Eastern Missouri lawyers who has struck it rich in Madison County and who is a major player in the atrazine litigation.

Six suits against atrazine manufacturers and a retailer, Illinois-based Growmark, were filed five years ago in Madison County, recognized nationally as one of America's "judicial hellholes," primarily because it welcomes out-of-state plaintiffs' attorneys seeking cash bonanzas.

Last month, the same lawyers hedged their bets, filing a federal class action suit for 17 plaintiffs from six Midwestern states in the Southern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs in both suits are local water boards.

Among the lawyers are Baron and Budd - billionaire attorneys from Texas - and Tillery, their local representative.

The trial lawyers are likely to say the lawsuits aim at far-off companies unjustly enriched in Illinois. The truth is their immediate victims will be Illinois corn growers.

Atrazine is no ordinary herbicide. EPA says it brings $28 of value to every acre, in 2003 dollars. By that estimate, it is worth more than $200 million per year to Illinois corn growers and its annual national value is no less than $2 billion, again in 2003 dollars.

Losing that much would hurt all corn growers; it could devastate those who are struggling. In these tough times, it could put them out of business and their families out of their homes.

The lawsuits say runoff makes drinking water unsafe. But atrazine, the most studied agricultural input in history, is found to be safe around the world, in Britain, Canada, Australia, by the World Health Organization and our own U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.

It has been approved for use in the United States for over 50 years. Currently used in 60 countries, it has never been banned due to health concerns. The EPA, in 2006, after a 12-year review that included more than 6000 scientific studies, found atrazine poses no harm to infants or the general population when used as directed.

Trace amounts found in a few handfuls of water systems are so tiny - literally measured in parts per billion - and EPA safety margins are so large, that an average adult could drink thousands of gallons every day for 70 years and still not reach an exposure level at which any health effects have been detected.

In other words, there is no safety issue.

So, why are they suing? Why do many - most? - plaintiff attorneys sue? Why are dozens of asbestos suits filed in Madison County each month?

Public documents show one of the plaintiffs plans a new $4.5 million filtration system. It is no coincidence that the suits demand new, high-end, state-of-the-art filtering systems.

And of course the plaintiffs' attorneys will receive cash for their clients if they win. Big piles of cash. Silos full of cash.

Farming -- and corn growing especially -- is basic to Illinois. Cash-strapped water districts seeking new sources of funding is not a surprise, but neither are out-of-state attorneys trying to cash in.

But we need to remember that their bonanzas are not free to our farmers - or to us.

If atrazine's value is wiped out, jobs will be lost and Illinois farmers will produce less corn. That means less revenue, and that will hurt the economies of our rural communities and ultimately our state economy that already faces so many challenges.

Read the rest of this article on atrazine lawsuits here.

EPA’s Ag Plate Fills -From Atrazine to Nutrient Runoff, Agency Has Ag Issues in Sights

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 1 comments
Source: Greg D. Horstmeier DTN Production Editor

COLUMBIA, Mo. (DTN) — Agriculture is becoming a common subject in the halls of the Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA rulings could cast a long shadow over agriculture in the coming year. The agency has a number of regulation reviews and other activities that could affect farming, and some ag leaders are becoming concerned about what they deem an “activist-led agency.”

“We have a whole new administration that’s built on activism,” said Rick Tolman, chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association. “So there is a component of the Obama constituent base that feels more empowered, so there’s more opportunity for those voices to be heard than in the past. Whether that’s right or wrong, you can decide. It’s just a reality.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, speaking before the National Press Club recently, noted that the agency’s more aggressive stance was partially based on the fact that chemical safety laws in the U.S. “are 30 years old, and the fact that (those laws) are widely perceived as being toothless, I think we owe it to the American people to answer their concerns and pleas for help.”

Here’s a look at some of the subjects EPA is looking at this year that could have an impact on how you farm.

ATRAZINE

The popular corn herbicide is going through agency review for human and environmental impacts. EPA spokespersons say this new review, falling on the heels of a 2006 review that essentially gave the herbicide a clean bill of health, was already being planned, then was stepped up to be part of the discussion of how EPA uses epidemiological and other human health studies to evaluate pesticide safety. Pesticide supporters have called foul, intimating that current EPA leadership is forcing agency employees to look at specific health and environmental studies that never got a glance before, due to questionable science.

New rules, if any, on atrazine use should be finalized by the end of 2010.

In the meantime, water districts from 16 states have joined a federal lawsuit against atrazine manufacturers, asking for compensation for water filtration systems needed to remove atrazine from drinking water.

PESTICIDE APPLICATION PERMITS

Known inside Washington Beltway ag circles as the “Sixth Circuit Court decision,” the issue is based on Clean Water Act regulations that state an entity that could be a “point source” of pesticides or other pollutants that have the potential to run off into water must have a permit for “discharging.” In the past, EPA has said agricultural pesticide applicators, when abiding by pesticide labels, don’t fall under discharge rules, and don’t need a permit. The Sixth Circuit Court disagreed, saying its reading of the Clean Water Act makes any pesticide discharge, whether from an industrial waste pipe or a sprayer nozzle, a potential point “source.”

EPA Administrator Jackson, asked a question on the subject at her National Press Club speech, said creating a proper permitting scheme “is a huge undertaking.” Essentially, every farmer or commercial applicator applying pesticides that have any chance of running off into waterways will have to be permitted. She promised that permits will “be done in a way that I think shows we’re building on programs that are already out there as we comply with the court ruling.” Several state regulators said they likely would handle such permits in a “class” format, in which the state creates one broad permit, and applicators could make a simple application to fall within that permit. Permit rules are expected mid-year.

INERT INGREDIENTS

The agency has proposed that pesticide manufacturers reveal the contents of so-called “inert” ingredients on the product label. Inerts typically include surfactants and other chemicals that can enhance the pesticide’s activity or make it easier to mix and apply.

DRIFT REGULATIONS

EPA presented a draft of new pesticide drift regulations late in 2009. Comments on those rules drew fire from state regulators and farm groups alike, as the draft said applicators would be violating regulations any time drift occurred with a pesticide that “could cause” damage to property, wildlife or humans. Critics said it is impossible to achieve zero drift during a season, and also said the phrasing “could cause” was too open-ended and superseded current pesticide law. EPA is reviewing comments on the draft rules.

INDIRECT LAND USE CHANGE

EPA is expected to release a proposed rule that could include an indirect land use change penalty for biofuels. The penalty is based on the theory that growth in biofuels will spread land use change around the world away from native vegetation and toward biofuel crops. “It’s a flawed piece of policy that has tremendous negative implications for farmers right now,” Tolman said.

NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT

There is concern among many farm groups that the failure of voluntary nutrient management plans to clean up the Chesapeake Bay will create mandatory maximum runoff and nitrogen and phosphorus loading levels. Such maximums could then become the template for controlling nutrient runoff for the rest of the country. Last month, the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, part of the Mississippi River Collaborative, called for more consistency in state fertilizer application regulations, increased crop set-backs from waterways, mandatory fencing to keep livestock out of streams, and more teeth in clean water regulations for agriculture.

Read the rest of this article here.

No Award for Ivory’s Inaccurate Atrazine Story

Monday, April 5, 2010 1 comments
The Huffington Post Investigative Fund’s Danielle Ivory was a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors investigative journalism award for an article she wrote on atrazine. Maybe she didn’t win because her story was inaccurate.

Sure, I crossed over to the “dark side” leaving newspaper journalism for public relations, but I still remember my news roots. Those roots go back to ink-scented offices at my college newspaper, then at the historic Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kan.  The pay wasn’t great, but I gained a fortune in news smarts from some amazing (and often grumpy) editors.  A lazily written story was always challenged with red ink. Notes to the side like “attribution?”, “source?” or “prove it!” were common even in the simplest of stories. Opinion was to be left on page four, and you had better interview sources from each side of a story. Lots of red pens must be sitting unused in today’s newsrooms.

An example is Danielle Ivory’s almost award-winning reporting on atrazine. While I took issue with many parts of the story, let’s simply look at the lead: “One of the nation's most widely-used herbicides has been found to exceed federal safety limits in drinking water in four states, but water customers have not been told and the Environmental Protection Agency has not published the results.”

The lead is a little long and, but it does portray the breathlessness with which the writer is reporting the story. Breathlessness aside, let’s look at the facts in the lead. Ivory states the herbicide has exceeded federal safety limits. This is incorrect. The federal safety limit for atrazine is three parts per billion based on an annual average. This is specified in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s standards for atrazine.  While test results showed atrazine levels well above 3 parts per billion in some cases, those were found in individual weekly tests that were part of a program designed to take a closer look at atrazine levels in certain areas. The EPA drinking water limits are based on an “annual average” and not individual readings. If the writer was not aware of this, her editors should have been. The atrazine levels in water in these areas fall well within the EPA’s drinking water standards. In fact, there have been no violations of the drinking water standards anywhere in the U.S. since 2005.

According to EPA:  “Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the atrazine Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is intended to prevent longer-term, or chronic, health concerns from occurring even after years of exposure and is calculated against a running average from four quarterly samples. An occasional peak concentration above 3 ppb is, therefore, not cause for concern. Rather, a long-term, consistent value above a yearly average of 3 ppb would be of concern. The MCL is designed to protect all population subgroups.”

An editor once told me, if the lead is wrong, the entire story lacks credibility. He also told me that I couldn’t slant a story based on my personal agenda. Maybe these rules no longer stand.
The Huffington Post congratulated Ivory on being chosen a finalist for the IRE investigative journalism award, claiming that the story played a part in mobilizing Senator Barbara Boxer into pressuring EPA to open yet another evaluation of atrazine, and led  to a class action suit against the makers of atrazine.

I congratulate the IRE for not giving Danielle Ivory an award for her investigative article. I like to think an old editor who serves on the IRE board marked her copy with red ink.

Sue Schulte, Director of Communications
Kansas Corn Growers Association
Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association