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  You are here:  ProgramsPublic Policy InitiativesMaine Board of Pesticides Control ReportsBPC – Nov. 1998   


Board of Pesticides Control Meeting, November 1998

Monsanto Retreat
Wild Blueberry Herbicide Woes
Specific Exemption for Blueberry Fungicide Granted
Pesticide Spraying for Brown Tail Moths to Increase
Green Thumb Lawn Service Fined for Unauthorized Applications
Gillespie Farms Enforcement Action Concluded


Monsanto Retreat

Does it surprise you that the world’s second largest chemical corporation can’t find a scientist when it needs one? That was the reported reason that Monsanto pulled out at the last minute from a November 20, 1998, Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) meeting scheduled to consider its application to register genetically engineered field corn in Maine. The Board proceeded to discuss the application, and developed a list of 13 questions that Monsanto needed to answer to meet the statutory standard of need and to ensure no adverse environmental effects. Monsanto ultimately, in early January, requested an “indefinite tabling” of the application, telling the Board that it would need to perform a “cost-benefit analysis” of preparing a response to those questions. Monsanto suggested that the amount of corn seed that it might sell in Maine did not warrant the costs of responding to the Board’s inquiry.

In BPC meetings in October and December 1997, the Board had considered similar applications to register genetically engineered field corn by Novartis: and DeKalb Genetics (DeKalb was subsequently purchased by Monsanto). The corn incorporates genetic material from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, which is a natural pesticide used by organic and other farmers. The application was opposed by MOFGA and others because widespread use of the Bt genetically engineered corn would exacerbate the risk of insect resistance to the Bt toxin, and because no need was demonstrated for the product in Maine. The applicants had introduced no evidence that the products would significantly increase yield for farmers growing field corn in Maine; currently, no Maine farmers apply any pesticides to control the target pest, European corn borer (ECB), in field corn. The Board denied the Novartis and DeKalb applications in December, citing both of the concerns MOFGA had raised. Board Chair Tom Saviello, however, noted that he would welcome reconsideration of the issue if the applicants could demonstrate need.

In an apparent response to Saviello’s request, this time Monsanto’s written application was accompanied by a faxed, five-page report from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, on Bt field corn trials conducted by Pest Management Specialist James Dill in Stillwater, Knox and Freedom, Maine, last summer. The report compared ECB damage in two varieties of genetically engineered corn (not Monsanto’s corn and not even a maturity variety that would be of use to Maine farmers) to conventional corn. The report purported to find more evidence of ECB presence in conventional corn.

During the discussion about the Monsanto application that ensued at the November 20 BPC meeting, BPC Director Bob Batteese revealed that the Cooperative Extension field trials were performed at the urging of the Maine Department of Agriculture, after a meeting attended by Cheryl Timberlake, a leading lobbyist for the biotech industry in Maine, shortly after the denial of the Novartis and DeKalb applications. The Department, according to Bateese, “thought they might coordinate a presentation on the need issue” using Dill’s research. They were caught by surprise, however, by Monsanto’s insistence that it wanted to proceed with the application “for marketing reasons” in November. It is unclear whether Monsanto’s urgency had anything to do with the December retirement from the Board of Chair Tom Saviello, who had openly declared his favorable perspective on biotechnology when the earlier corn applications were considered.

Representatives of the Department of Agriculture who attended the November 20 meeting learned in no uncertain terms that the input on need was woefully inadequate, at least in the view of new Board Chair Alan Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Maine at Machias. Lewis took the opportunity to criticize at length the “scientific validity” of the report on field trials. Among the numerous adequacies of the report, Lewis cited no criteria for assessing and comparing ECB damage in conventional versus Bt corn. “Was one [corn borer] bite ‘damage’ or was there an assessment of biomass loss?” queried Lewis. The report, Lewis noted, was utterly unclear about how to convert its observations to yield loss and economic loss. After enumerating more than a dozen questions about the report, Lewis concluded, “If they can’t answer these questions, this data has no validity.” James Dill responded that the field trials were performed at the request of the Department of Agriculture to get some handle on ECB activity in field corn in Maine, but “was not intended to be science.” Dill’s faxed report acknowledged that “the unanswered question concerning conventional vs. Bt corn is the quality of silage produced from either type of corn.” The Board directed staff to compile a list of specific questions regarding need for the product and Monsanto’s plan for resistance management, and to forward those to Monsanto, asking that the company be prepared to respond when it is ready to proceed with its application.

The Board then took comments from the audience. This writer indicated that MOFGA would reserve its comments for Monsanto’s presentation, but requested the name and address of the Monsanto representative who had canceled the company’s appearance, so that members of the audience who had made the trip in anticipation of hearing Monsanto could send a statement for the travel expenses and lost time to the company. Nancy Oden of CLEAN: Maine stated that she was “outraged” that the Cooperative Extension would conduct field trials of this Bt corn in Maine without public notice, presenting a risk that the product could cross pollinate and contaminate conventional corn crops. Monique Gautreau of Bangor stated that she, as a parent, was very concerned about her inability to choose whether or not to eat genetically engineered foods. “I think less of them because Monsanto has put so many barriers in the way of labeling and informing consumers about genetically engineered foods. If they stood so strongly behind the integrity of their product, why are they afraid to label it?” Michael Vayda, however, a biochemistry professor at the University of Maine, spoke in favor of genetically engineered foods, arguing that there is “no evidence” that they are more allergenic than other foods.

It appears now that Monsanto will not be back in Maine with a Bt corn application in time for the next growing season.

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Wild Blueberry Herbicide Woes

Some Maine “wild” blueberry farmers are coming to realize that the pesticide treadmill entails more risks than they bargained for. For more than a year now, growing evidence has shown that the herbicide hexazinone, in its widely promoted granular form, entails a risk of killing the very blueberry plant it’s intended to protect. This was the focus of a special presentation by Cooperative Extension Blueberry Specialist Dave Yarborough at the November 20 BPC meeting. The presentation was arranged by Chair Alan Lewis, after Lewis visited Guptill Farms in Wesley to inspect “extensive damage” to blueberry plants allegedly caused by the granular hexazinone formulation Pronone, manufactured by the Tennessee company Proserve.

In 1994, public concern about widespread, low-level hexazinone contamination of wells in the vicinity of blueberry fields led to an unsuccessful petition to ban the herbicide. In response, the blueberry growers developed a set of best management practices, and the BPC oversaw the development of a Hexazinone State Management Plan for the Protection of Groundwater. The linchpin of both the Management Plan and the best management practices was to reduce groundwater contamination by reducing the quantities of herbicide used, and converting from liquid to granular formulations, the latter promising less propensity to leach. As previously reported (MOF&G March/May 1998), little progress has been made on the groundwater protection objective. Although farmers have reduced their per acre applications from 1.8 pounds in 1991 to 1 lb. in 1998, or one-third the maximum allowable application, Cooperative Extension well tests have shown seasonal fluctuations, but no net decrease in contamination levels. BPC tests of a separate sampling of wells are a little more promising, however. In 1998 tests of 42 wells supplying homes near blueberry fields showed 26% with detectable levels; 1995 tests of the same 42 wells plus an additional 13 (which couldn’t be tested in 1998) had shown a higher, 75% incidence of contamination.

Of perhaps even more concern to growers, however, were reports that hexazinone was either not effective or was actually damaging blueberry plants. Beginning in 1996, farmers experienced invasions of grasses filling in bare spots left by the weeds that hexazinone killed, and some were experiencing spots where nothing at all grew. A growers’ meeting in Machias in January 1997 focused on these problems, which seemed to be associated particularly with the granular formulation of the herbicide. As a consequence, growers are now shifting back to liquid hexazinone, despite the recommendation of the best management practices and Groundwater Management Plan. Proportionate use of the granulated product went from a high of 74% in 1996 to only 29% in 1998.

In speaking of the problem of the invasive grasses, Yarborough noted at the November 20 meeting that this is to be expected, since they have no competition from weeds. “You can’t just apply the same thing year after year and expect the same result. [The grasses] are Mother Nature’s way of fill a void.” Yarborough said that he “was working” on the problem, and is testing other herbicides to use in rotation with hexazinone. In response to a query from the audience, Yarborough declined to identify the herbicides he was experimenting with, saying he was “not allowed to say what it is until we’re ready to bring it up for approval.”

With respect to the apparent destruction of blueberry plants associated with hexazinone use, Yarborough stated that he had inspected the Guptill Farms fields as well as other fields where damage was reported. He attributed the damage to two separate problems: uneven application rates, and uneven terrain with drainage problems. Application of hexazinone approaching the label maximum can kill plants. The type of equipment least likely to cause overlaps and uneven application is a boom sprayer, which most growers can’t afford to use. Other types of spreaders cause patchy areas of kill. The problem at Guptill Farms, however, was related more to wetter than usual soils and uneven terrain. Whereas for other agricultural uses hexazinone is spread on flat terrain, the natural hills and valleys of many wild blueberry fields invite the granular pellets to concentrate, either by wind or rain, in low-lying areas. A test of hexazinone levels in the soil at Guptill Farms, two years after application, showed 144 ppb in high areas, and 1885 ppb in low-lying areas where plants had been killed.

Yarborough said that in addition to testing alternative herbicides, he was considering recommending changes to the Pronone label to warn growers about these risks. In the meantime, growers are responding in their own way by shifting back to liquid hexazinone, which still demonstrates a higher propensity to leach into groundwater. Chairman Alan Lewis questioned Yarborough about whether his test results, showing steady levels of contamination despite cutting application rates nearly in half, didn’t suggest that “you’ve increased the level of intrusion.” “How do we know,” asked Lewis, “that the best management practices are really working?” After a long pause, Yarborough replied, “That’s a good question.”

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Specific Exemption for Blueberry Fungicide Granted

At its November 20 meeting, the BPC decided not to act on a request from Cooperative Extension to file an emergency use request for an unregistered fungicide, Propiconazole (Orbit 3.6E), to control mummyberry disease on wild blueberries. Although the Board had approved a similar application last year, it decided to take a closer look now. When BPC toxicologist LeBelle Hicks was queried about possible health hazards, she indicated that she had not reviewed this question and didn’t have an answer. The product label was also missing from the application. Nancy Oden reported to the Board that she had obtained a U.S. Forest Service Fact Sheet on Propiconazole; that it was a possible (class C) human carcinogen, causing liver tumors in male mice; that it was associated with some reduction in offspring survival in laboratory tests; and that it is “slightly to moderately toxic to fish.” The Forest Service also warns that it “may be a hazard to endangered species if it is applied where they live.” Oden queried whether this product should be used anywhere where eagles have their habitat. The Board requested Dr. Carol Eckert, Chair of the Medical Advisory Committee, to look into the question of the product’s human health and environmental effects before the next meeting. At the December meeting of the BPC, Yarborough assured the Board that residue data would be collected from the 1998 crop, and Eckert cited “reasonable data on cranberries” regarding the product’s safety. The emergency registration request passed unanimously.

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Pesticide Spraying for Brown Tail Moths to Increase

Acres sprayed with pesticide to control brown tail moths are expected to nearly double this year – from 3300 last year to 6000 acres, affecting over 10,000 households along the southern Maine coast. Dick Bradbury, Maine Forest Service Entomologist, received BPC approval for the use of the insect growth regulator tebufenozide (Confirm 2F) for next year’s spraying program, without the 100 ft. shorefront buffer requirement previously imposed by the Board. Bradbury reported that the infestation of the moth, which causes a dermatitis in humans and respiratory effects in 10% of the population exposed to nettling hairs on the moth larvae, is estimated to cover 500,000 acres. The spraying program, targeted at populated areas, is not intended to eradi- cate the insect but to minimize effects on humans. The natural life cycle of such an infestation is up to 12 years.

The Forest Service intends to substitute Confirm for the pesticide Dimilin, which, while half as costly, appears to present a higher risk for marine life. Bradbury presented a study of the exposure of lobsters to Confirm, finding no acute toxicity. Bradbury argued that based on this study, the 100-ft. buffer requirement should be lifted, since it made aerial spraying essentially impossible on small islands. Where the buffer prevents aerial applications, homeowners have been applying on their own substantially higher rates of Dimilin. Bradbury conceded that there was a “definite data gap” regarding the effect of Confirm on marine life other than lobsters, but argued that it was clearly a safer alternative than Dimilin. The Forest Service’s application was supported by Edith Curtis, a summer resident of an island in Freeport. Curtis, who had come from Idaho to speak at the meeting, reported that after opening her island home last summer, she had had a severe respiratory reaction to the moth. “My throat was swollen, I could barely eat for a month, and I lost 35 lbs. I was unable to breath for short periods of time. I still can’t speak normally.” The Forest Service’s application was unanimously approved.

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Green Thumb Lawn Service Fined for Unauthorized Applications

For two years in a row, Green Thumb Lawn Service of Brewer made unauthorized pesticide applications on Linda Torrey’s lawn in Ellsworth. The second time it happened, on May 16, 1998, Torrey decided to call in the BPC, although Green Thumb’s owner urged her not to. BPC inspector Robert Tomlins, visiting Torrey’s residence the day after the lawn treatment, detected the strong odor of 2,4- D near clothes hanging on a line and a children’s slider/rocker (the clothes and rocker had been there since the pesticide application). Wipe samples confirmed the presence of 2,4-D.

Green Thumb agreed that they had applied the wrong lawn for the second year, and agreed, as part of their settlement with the BPC, to implement a company-wide procedure to attach stickers to the electric meter boxes of homes where applications have been authorized. In urging Torrey not to file a complaint with the State, Green Thumb owner Michael Lagasse, according to Torrey’s written statement, had argued that “if the State gets involved I would be out of the process, and all he would get would be a $100 - $300 fine.” Green Thumb ultimately agreed to pay a $2500 fine for the two unauthorized applications.

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Gillespie Farms Enforcement Action Concluded

The BPC’s enforcement action against Gillespie Farms for widespread foliar damage on neighboring property resulting from the application of the Command 4EC herbicide to its pumpkin crop, and failure to provide pesticide safety training to migrant workers (see The MOF&G, Dec.-Feb. ‘98), was finally resolved by BPC approval of a Consent Agreement on Jan. 22 for $350 in fines and development of plans for drift management and worker training.

– Sharon Tisher

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