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Clouds of Doubt: Questions about enforcement of pesticide laws

Moorhead, Minn. — Millions of pounds of pesticides are used in Minnesota every year. They're used on a variety of farm crops across rural Minnesota. Pesticides are also commonly used on lawns, parks and golf courses.

Every year some of those chemicals are misused. Sometimes people and animals are exposed to pesticides. Those incidents often violate state and federal law.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is the only state agency responsible for enforcing those laws. But an MPR investigation finds violations of the law are often unpunished, and sometimes ignored.

It happens to people working in farm fields, and children at school. An accidental or careless application exposes them to dangerous pesticides.

"The big cloud of pesticide was just on top of us. It was just fumigating us totally. It covered our bodies," Griselda Lopez, a migrant farm worker, recalls a 1993 incident involving her family. "We started yelling and jumping so the guy could see us -- and he never stopped, so we started running to the truck."

Lopez says the five workers were sick by the time they reached the edge of the field. But instead of getting help from the Ag Department, Lopez says she felt as though the department was working against them.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's lead investigator says all allegations of pesticide misuse are aggressively pursued. But in some cases, even when the law is clearly broken, the department takes no action.

Critics, including some lawmakers who want to change the Ag Department's approach to pesticide investigations, say they think the department is beholden to large ag companies.

"I've come to believe that the political power is with growers, and the perspective of the department is to serve the growers," says Cheryl Bergian, an attorney who represented farm workers exposed to pesticides. "So they don't have the institutional will to determine there have been violations of the law, unless they are incredibly egregious violations."

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