Department of Agriculture gets mostly positive marks in pesticide audit

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Corn field
Atrazine is a pesticide applied to cornfields.
MPR file photo

The auditor's report looked at several questions, from how the department is enforcing state and federal pesticide laws to how it's monitoring the effects of pesticides on the environment and how its pesticide management plan compares to other states.

Report co-manager Jody Hauer told the Legislative Audit Commission that overall the Agriculture Department is doing a good job in most areas. She said in 2004, the department investigated 430 potential pesticide violations. In half of those cases the department was able to substantiate that pesticide violations had occurred.

"Now when we compared Minnesota with 10 similar states, we saw that 51-percent of Minnesota's inspections resulted in some type of enforcement action being imposed which was the third highest percentage of these 11 states," she said.

Jody Hauer of the auditor's office
Jody Hauer of the Legislative Auditor's office.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Hauer says the mildest penalty was a written letter, called an advisory notice. That happened in three-percent of the cases. The strongest penalty, a fine, was issued in 21-percent of the cases. Hauer says the average fine was about $1,900.

But the auditor's office did find that agriculture officials are unable to determine if their enforcement efforts are consistent or effective because they lack an adequate database to help them track violations.

The auditor's office also gave the department good marks for its investigations of alleged pesticide mis-use that illegally exposes humans or animals to the chemicals. The report found that the department generally has a reasonable process for looking into cases and dealing with them in a timely manner.

But Hauer says auditors were concerned about one of the methods that the department uses to review pesticide applications.

She says some inspectors in Minnesota cover a fairly large area of the state - up to 10 counties in some cases. Because of driving distances, Hauer says some inspectors interview alleged pesticide violators by telephone rather than in person. In those cases, inspectors then ask the alleged violator to send his or her pesticide application record to the inspector by mail.

Perry Aasness of the state Ag Department
Perry Aasness, deputy commissioner of the state Agriculture Department.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"We believe that there are some cases that are by their nature quite adversarial and controversial and in those cases where the actual pesticide application or it's date is in dispute, we question whether the department can be assured that it has all the relevant information unless it goes on site and reviews those records in person," she said.

The auditor's report says the department should develop a with a clear policy that specifies when inspectors should interview people in person.

The report also recommended the department expand its monitoring of surface waters in urban areas and expand the list of pesticides that it tests.

Most of the recommendations went over well with the department. Perry Aasness, the Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture saw the report as validation of the department's work.

"We're gratified that the audit found that overall the MDA does a good job regulating and monitoring pesticides. However, we do agree with the auditor that there are opportunities for improvement as were mentioned in the report," he said.

After the hearing some lawmakers grumbled that the report was too easy on the department. Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, said she couldn't believe that the audit didn't find something seriously wrong with the way the department handles pesticide exposure complaints.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba
Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, says the state ag department is not tough enough in enforcing pollution from farm chemicals.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"If there's nothing wrong, why are so many people calling me? If there's nothing wrong why are people calling me about these issues," she said

Otremba says some of her constituents have started holding informal meetings among themselves because they're so concerned that not enough is being done to protect them from pesticides.

The auditor's office says its report is not designed to evaluate whether pesticides are causing harm in Minnesota. It's only intended to measure whether the agriculture department is doing its job in monitoring and regulating the chemicals.

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