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Go to Clouds of Doubt: Questions about enforcement of pesticide laws
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Ag Department resists changes in laws
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State Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba has failed so far in her attempts to get the Ag Department to make pesticide records public. "I think they're bought off by big ag. It seems like money is sort of in control instead of people," she claims. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Otremba's office)

Moorhead, Minn. — Rep. Jean Wagenius is not the only legislator who's tried and failed to change pesticide law.

State Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, a DFLer, owns a farm near Long Prairie. Last year she proposed opening pesticide records for public inspection. Otremba says the Ag Department and the agribusiness lobby moved swiftly to kill the proposal.

"Friends of mine who were around both the lobbyists and people in the department said the department was furious. They were scrambling," says Otremba.

The Ag Department protested it would cost millions to implement such a system. But Otremba says the information already exists. Pesticide applicators are required by law to keep detailed records. Otremba argues the Ag Department should make those records available for public inspection.

"I think they're bought off by big ag. It seems like money is sort of in control instead of people," says Otremba. "We're just country folk so to speak, as they look at us, and our incomes aren't very high -- so maybe we're not so smart, either. People are people. And we should be looking at the health and safety of everybody."

But the Ag Department denies any conflict between its roles of promoting agriculture and enforcing pesticide laws. Environmental Response and Enforcement Manager Paul Liemandt says the department walks the middle ground.

"There are people who would like strict regulation, there are people who would like no regulation," says Liemandt. "I think the department has a record. Those records are available for you. Over the entire body of work (we've done) I think we're being fair, but firm."

Liemandt says in the past four years, the department sent 16 warning letters about human exposure to pesticide sprayers. In that same period, the department investigated at least 75 human exposure cases.

Rep. Otremba and other legislators say they will try again this year to open pesticide records to public scrutiny. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it will continue its even-handed regulation of the industry.

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