A new report charges the Minnesota Department of Agriculture with failing its responsibility to protect the state's waters from pesticide contamination. A non-profit environmental group, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, released the report Monday. It's based on two years of research by the environmental group.
Minnesota farmers use more than 30 million pounds of pesticides each year. The Minnesota Agriculture Department is the sole state agency that regulates their use. The department is required by law to monitor for surface and groundwater contamination, and when pesticides threaten streams or groundwater, it's required to take action.
But Bob Eleff of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the report's author, says the agency's water monitoring efforts have huge gaps.
"The state's major crops are corn, soybeans and wheat. And there are no groundwater monitors in the five top corn-producing counties, or the five wheat-producing counties and the five top soybean-producing counties," Eleff says. "As a result, the department doesn't know what's going on in the groundwater of those areas."
Eleff charges that when it does get evidence of contamination, the Ag Department essentially ignores it.
"The U.S. Geological Survey looked at eight rivers in the Red River Valley, and detected 42 different pesticides and two breakdown products. Essentially, wherever we look we find something," says Eleff. "The problem is that once we find something, the Department of Agriculture is not acting to reduce the amount of pesticides in the groundwater, which they are charged with doing under the Minnesota Groundwater Protection Act."
The law requires the Ag Department to develop specific practices that farmers in problem areas can use to reduce groundwater contamination. But Eleff says that isn't happening.
He says that's because a committee determines whether the department should take action, and that committee is stacked with representatives from pesticide manufacturers and farm interests.
"What's missing from the committee is scientific expertise in the areas of toxicology, public health, water quality, hydrogeology and the like. We think these are technical decisions that should be made by scientifically-trained people, not a bunch of representatives of interest groups," Eleff says.
The report recommends handing the authority to order action on pesticides to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture division director Greg Buzicky says the department opposes any transfer of authority. But Buzicky says he does agree with some of the report's recommendations for more monitoring and more education efforts to reduce pesticide contamination.
"Where we perhaps differ is that we do believe that we have a very good surface and groundwater monitoring system in Minnesota. It's one of the best in the country," says Buzicky. "The question is, can we do more? We can always do more. That comes down to a matter of resources."
Buzicky says the department has been focusing on areas with the worst problems, such as the environmentally-sensitive Anoka sand plains north of the Twin Cities, and the fragile, cracked limestone geology of southeast Minnesota.
He says the department is concerned about low-level contamination from routine use of pesticides. But he says the vast majority of contamination that's detected is well below state and federal safety guidelines. He says pesticide spills are a more acute problem.
"At those locations, we sometimes see high concentrations of pesticides above the health risks. We spend a significant amount of time and staff resources cleaning up those sites," he says.
Buzinky says the department has collected 2.4 million pounds of waste pesticides since 1989, a figure that makes it a national leader.