Reprinted with permission from IowaWatch.org, produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism
Workloads for eight state investigators who determine whether herbicides are applied properly in Iowa have more than doubled the past two years, with no plans in sight for adding staffers.
The workload increase — from 110 misuse reports in the 2016 crop year to 249 in the 2018 crop year — coincides with the introduction by agrochemical companies of dicamba-based herbicides to kill weeds in farm fields.
In spite of this, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Pesticide Bureau have not added staff investigators, and completing cases is taking longer, spilling over into the next crop year. Cases taken on in the 2018 crop year, which ran from October 1, 2017, to September 31, 2018, have yet to close because investigators still are completing misuse reports for spray drift complaints filed last year, an IowaWatch investigation shows.
Moreover, federal funding to the bureau has decreased since 2016 by almost 10 percent.
“If we had more pesticide investigators, the way that the last couple of years have gone, we would be able to keep them busy,” Pesticide Bureau Chief Gretchen Paluch said.
The pesticide bureau is responsible for investigating pesticide spray drift, which includes herbicides, and misuse complaints, as well as ensuring that pesticide applicators are licensed or certified and applying pesticides in accordance to Iowa code.
With the increase in investigations, bureau staff has to focus first on getting to farm sites as soon as possible, Paluch said. Getting to the site as soon as possible to collect samples to test for pesticides is key because chemicals wash off or evaporate off plants as time progresses.
But follow-up visits, appointments and record keeping necessary to close the case often gets pushed off.
The goal is to respond to initial complaints of pesticide spray drift in five days, Paluch said. “We do our best to handle the pesticide use needs at this time,” she said.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Pesticide Bureau received 338 complaints in the 2018 crop year, 249 of which investigators were completing spray drift reports for as of Februrary 19.
In addition to the 249 misuse reports, 29 complaints were discontinued, 28 complaints were assigned as target records inspections, 18 were handled as informational assistance and 14 were followed with other investigative actions, an IowaWatch review of bureau records showed. The follow-ups included checking applicator’s licenses, checking pesticide dealer’s records and pesticide marketplace inspections.
The bureau received 331 complaints in 2017, and completed 248 misuse reports in the 2017 crop year, the first year that dicamba-based herbicides and dicamba-resistant soybeans were introduced. In 2016 the bureau received 195 complaints, 110 of which were misuse investigations.
While the number of complaints the pesticide bureau responds to has continued to increase the last three years, federal funding for the bureau’s fiscal year has decreased.
The pesticide bureau received $849,305 from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the bureau’s $2,359,030 fiscal 2016 budget, which covered spending from July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016. That’s 10 percent less than in fiscal 2017, when the bureau received $828,614 in federal funding.
“It used to represent a significant portion of our budget.” Paluch said. “Now most of the pesticide bureau activities are supported by state funding.”
The bureau’s total spending for fiscal 2018 was $2,598,355, which included a $768,614 grant from the EPA for the pesticide program. The bureau’s budget also included $43,350 in fees it collected and $1,785,394 from the state general fund.
The EPA approved dicamba-based herbicides for over-the-top application in October 2016. The herbicides were used more widely the following spring and summer.
While the bureau operates off of a crop year that runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the Pesticide Bureau’s budget is created for the state fiscal year, which covers from July 1 to June 30.
The bureau is receiving the same grant from the EPA for fiscal 2019.
THE DICAMBA DILEMMA
Agrochemical companies such as Monsanto began releasing versions of dicamba for over over-the-top application in fall 2016, which was the beginning of the 2017 crop year.
Meant to be applied to emerging plants, herbicides and application systems such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready ® Xtend Crop System can only be applied to genetically modified soybeans sold by Monsanto. Dicamba is used to help fight superweeds not responding to other herbicides.
Pesticide applicators are required by state laws to apply any pesticides by the label instructions. Dicamba product labels state that, in order to avoid spray drift, those using the product should not to apply it in winds over 10 miles an hour, or when there is a low inversion.
While winds are not more of a problem in Iowa than in any other Midwest state, Elwynn Taylor, an extension climatologist at Iowa State University in Ames, said adding inversions into the equation make safely applying dicamba difficult.
An inversion happens when warm air, released from the ground after the sun goes down, rises and traps cold air underneath it.
“If you’ve got an inversion that’s significant — 10 feet or 12 feet above the ground — then if you spray, a lot of spray will just hang in that area and drift,” Taylor said.
Inversions stay in place until winds pick up to about 5 miles an hour, which typically happens between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. in Iowa, before winds then climb to an average of 8 to 12 miles per hour. Applicators are left looking for a window where enough wind exists to move the air layers that create an inversion, but not too much to cause pesticides to spray off-target.
Taylor said Iowa, along with other Midwest states, are putting in more weather stations to track inversions across the state.
“The chemical companies are interested in: where are the inversions?” Taylor said.
But chemical labels still could be adapted to address inversions better by stating that spraying should not be done when any inversion is present and restricting spraying to when the wind blows between 4 to 9 miles an hour, Taylor said.
RELATED: LEGISLATIVE BILL WOULD INCREASE PESTICIDE APPLICATION FEES IN IOWA, SEND MONEY TO INSPECTIONS
CAN THE PESTICIDE BUREAU KEEP UP?
Concerns about the pesticide bureau’s ability to handle the complaints it was receiving existed before the 2017 crop year started two years ago.
“We didn’t feel they were acting in a timely manner on some of their investigations,” State Senator Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) said.
Kinney said the Legislature had received a significant number of complaints about how long it was taking the bureau to process its investigations and could foresee the introduction of products such as Roundup Ready ® Xtend Crop System being a problem.
Rather than hire more investigators, the bureau opted to move the chemical lab-testing process they were using to the State Hygenic Laboratory in Ankeny.
A bill has been introduced in the Iowa Legislature that would increase the fee for a three-year pesticide application certification from $15 to $30 and designate money raised from those fees to the state’s pesticide and administration fund.
Farmers IowaWatch talked to said they do not have issues with the bureau after filing summer 2017 reports of spray drift they suspected had dicamba.
Andy Kline, from Boone, filed a complaint with the bureau on behalf of his father, Donald Kline. The Klines initially contacted the salesman who sold the herbicide that drifted onto their crops. The salesman told them the crops would recover from the damage, Andy Kline said.
The company reimbursed Kline for the damage at the end of the crop year and he did not end up using the bureau’s report for damages, but Kline said the bureau responded quickly to his complaint.
“I can’t remember the days but I thought he looked at it while the beans still looked the same,” Kline said, referring to damage the beans sustained.
The bureau’s report stated that Donald Kline noticed the damage around July 5, 2017. He contacted the United Coop, which had applied the chemicals on July 10, and the pesticide bureau on the July 20. The pesticide bureau visited his farm and collected samples on July 21, documents IowaWatch read showed.
The bureau conducts its investigations by doing an onsite visit, and collecting samples of the damaged crops when possible. Inspectors then order lab work on the samples and follow up with actions such as contacting neighboring farms or pesticide applicators who’ve worked in the area, visiting them when necessary.
Misuse investigations look at information such as applicators’ spraying records, farmers’ records and meteorological wind levels at the time of spraying.
Staff reporter Lauren Wade’s work on this story was supported by the University of Northern Iowa Science in the Media project and the college student IowaWatch-Science in the Media fellowship program on which it collaborates with IowaWatch.