Moorhead, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is the only state agency with authority to investigate pesticide misuse. Only the Ag Department has access to pesticide records. Say you want to find out what chemical was sprayed yesterday on a field or the golf course across the road. State law says that information is protected.
Ag Department Enforcement and Investigations Manager Paul Liemandt says the pesticide industry wanted those records protected.
"There were moments over the last decade or two when applicators felt their pesticide application activities were being viewed critically by different communities," says Liemandt. "They did not want to be exposed to harrassment or even unnecessary inquiry into their activities if they were performing their work according to the law. Whether a private citizen believes it's an impediment to the right to know vital information, I believe you may be correct in saying it is an obstacle."
Some Minnesota lawmakers tried to open pesticide applicator records last year. The Ag Department lobbied against the change. Pesticide use records are still protected by Minnesota law.
Nick Messer knows that law well. Messer lives on a small farm in Todd County. He says he tried for months to get information about chemicals used on a tree farm next door.
"The Ag Department and I went around and around and nothing ever became of it. And I just gave up," says Messer. "You can only make so many long distance phone calls and scream so many times, and after beating your head against the wall and driving yourself crazy for months -- got these kiss-off letters."
Nick Messer raises horses and dogs on his small farm. In the past couple of years, he says four foals died after an adjacent field was sprayed. In each case, he says he saw a helicopter spray something on a nearby field, and sometimes on his pasture.
Messer says within a few days, the young horses developed sores around their mouths and on their bodies. Then they started staggering around the pasture, and quickly died. Autopsies showed at least some of the animals died of liver and kidney failure. Messer says around the same time a pregnant dog experienced a spontaneous abortion. Several mares also aborted their foals.
Messer says when he and his nephew went into the pasture to remove a dead horse, they got sick.
"It's kind of a weird smell. It's almost like if you mix kerosene, Hilex and ammonia together. It's just got this weird gassy kind of smell to it. But it makes you really sick. Pukey sick. It gives you really bad headaches," says Messer.
The smell may have been a chemical. It may have been something else. Nick Messer can't know, because the applicator doesn't have to tell him what was sprayed. State law protects the records.
What really angered Nick Messer was an experience one Saturday in July 2001. He and his wife were outside with their daughter Whitney, then 2. They were checking on horses in a pasture near their house. He stands near the same spot as he recalls the incident.
"All of a sudden we heard all this big helicopter going," says Messer. "We had no idea what it was at first. But we were on the edge of the hayfield there. And they just started spraying. It was a really windy day and it was coming from that direction, and it blew right toward our house -- it was just like this big cloud coming."
Nick Messer was concerned his daughter Whitney may have been exposed to a pesticide. So he called his family doctor, David Freeman. Freeman says the child suffered no obvious health effects.
But Dr. Freeman says he was troubled he could not get information about what pesticides may have been used around the Messer farm. "The patient care for this family has been less than optimum. So from now on, when we see Whitney Messer every year, I've got a little bit keener eye toward anything that might be abnormal. Whether that be looking for cancer or looking for neurologic deficits," says Freeman.
The patient care for this family has been less than optimum. So from now on, when we see Whitney Messer every year, I've got a little bit keener eye toward anything that might be abnormal. Whether that be looking for cancer or looking for neurologic deficits.
Dr. Freeman says he was incredulous when he learned pesticide spraying records are private under Minnesota law.
"Common sense would say, 'Why is that law there?' The only thing I can see that it does is it protects a company from litigation, because you can't get at it," says Freeman. "And then the other thing is I ask the question, 'Why can't I get that (information)? Is it that toxic to the environment that we shouldn't be using it?' I mean if they're spraying stuff they have to hide, what the heck are they spraying it for?"
Dr. Freeman was so upset he wrote a letter to the state Health Department requesting an investigation. He expressed concern about chronic exposure for the young girl. A Health Department research scientist wrote to the Department of Agriculture.
The Health Department memo says it appears the insecticide Carbaryl was sprayed on hybrid poplar trees near Nick Messer's home.
"To help ensure this child does not become chronically exposed to aerially-applied chemicals, I'm asking you to follow up on this issue," said the memo.
In a lengthy response, the Ag Department insisted there was no evidence Nick Messer's property or family were exposed to pesticides. The memo also challenged Messer's credibility, saying he was uncooperative with investigators.
"Unfortunately, surprisingly, and for whatever reasons unknown to MDA, he did not provide our department with the requested information necessary for us to investigate, confirm or reject his allegations," wrote Ag Department Environmental Response and Enforcement Manager Paul Liemandt.
Messer admits he was angry and frustrated, but he says he felt the Ag Department was trying to stymie his efforts to get an investigation. He says he wanted his property tested for pesticide residue, something he says was never done.
Nick Messer's complaints did prompt some action. The Ag Department investigated the records of three local pesticide sprayers and found they had violated a variety of state and federal laws. But investigators said there was no connection to Nick Messer's complaint.
The Agriculture Department sent advisory notices to the sprayers who had broken the law. An advisory notice is a letter saying the law has been broken. There are no fines or penalties. Ag Department records over the past five years show very few cases of human exposure are substantiated, and warnings are far more common than fines. In at least one documented case, the Ag Department found a pesticide company guilty of human endangerment when a highly toxic fumigant was left in the garbage, but then negotiated a lesser settlement with the company.
Nick Messer thinks someone should be accountable for what happened on his farm. He wants to know what pesticides were sprayed on his neighbor's land. But those records are protected, so Nick Messer is left wondering.
"This is still America. You pay taxes to have these Ag Departments, government agencies protect the people," says Messer. "They should be protecting the people they were meant to protect. We gotta protect ourselves, and that's not going real well either."