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House committee kills atrazine ban
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Farmers in Minnesota and elsewhere oppose limits on the corn herbicide atrazine. They say the chemical helps bring them higher yields. Critics say the chemical is widespread in the groundwater and should be limited or banned. (MPR file photo)
A House Agriculture committee has rejected three bills that would have banned or restricted use of the farm herbicide atrazine. Critics of the weed killer had argued that new scientific studies show the chemical causes reproductive deformities in frogs, and is linked to low sperm counts and some cancers in humans. Atrazine supporters challenged those findings and said if the chemical is banned, Minnesota farmers won't be able to compete with growers in other states.

Similar bills have been proposed in the Senate. But lawmakers doubt they'll get a hearing. They say attempts to ban the chemical are probably over for this Legislative session.

St. Paul, Minn. — Authors of the three bills knew they faced an uphill battle in the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, where most of the members were either farmers themselves or represented farming districts. So when Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, spoke about her bill to restrict the use of atrazine, she appealed to those rural ties.

Wagenius told committee members that atrazine is common in the state's ground and surface water that supplies one million private wells, mostly in rural areas.

"These wells are rarely tested and rarely treated," she said. "These wells belong to your constituents."

Wagenius doesn't know how many private wells might be contaminated with atrazine, because she said state officials haven't tested many of them and residents haven't been encouraged to do it either. But she said tests of other Minnesota water sources often show readings way above three parts per billion -- the upper limit of what the state considers safe for residents in the Twin Cities metro area.

Wagenius's bill would have put restrictions on the use of atrazine. Rep. Keith Ellison, another Minneapolis DFLer, proposed two bills that would eliminate the chemical altogether.

"Ban it," said Ellison. "Do what the Europeans do. If it's not good enough for them, it's not good enough for us."

But committee members also heard from lots of atrazine supporters. Jere White traveled to St. Paul from Kansas, where he is the executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association. White challenged the new science behind claims that atrazine is a human health threat.

He said the Environmental Protection Agency has examined many of those same studies and he doubts they would approve the chemical's use if it was dangerous.

"Do you really believe that the U.S. EPA, under two administrations, one Democrat and one Republican, would disregard a real threat to human health and the environment?" said White. "Do you believe that?"

Others warned the committee not to overstep its bounds. Al Christopherson, the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the question committee members should ask themselves is whether Minnesota should have tougher atrazine standards than any other state in the nation.

"Our answer as an organization, and my answer as a farmer, is no," said Christopherson. "Now if your answer is yes, then what is next? And where will it end?"

The Agriculture and Rural Development committee rejected all three bills. Similar bills also have been proposed in the Senate. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is sponsoring one that would ban atrazine. But he says he hasn't been promised a hearing.

He probably won't get one. The chair of the Senate Ag committee told farmers at an ethanol rally this week that he doubts there will be time in the Senate's schedule to give the atrazine bills a hearing there.

Atrazine critics are disappointed, but they say this was just the first step in educating the public about the dangers of the herbicide. They promise to bring the issue back again next session.