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Despite reinstating the controversial pesticide dicamba this week, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own data shows that the damage from the weed killer was worse than previously known.

The pesticide harmed tens of thousands of farmers, overwhelmed state agriculture departments and damaged research plots across the United States, according to documents the federal agency released Tuesday. Wide swaths of natural areas and rural communities were also poisoned.

Attempting to curb the damage, the agency implemented new measures, including nation-wide cut-off dates after which dicamba cannot be sprayed. The agency said this gives it “90% confidence” the damage will go away, documents show.

The Trump Administration approved the controversial pesticide for five more years this week, reinstating the weed killer after it had been banned earlier this year by a federal court for causing widespread damage to farmers and the environment. 

In making the announcement Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed that new changes to the way the weed killer can be sprayed will eliminate concerns about damaging other crops. Chemical companies and farming organizations praised the decision, but others aren’t so sure the proposed changes — the third in four years — will work.

“It is difficult for me to believe somehow that after four bites at the apple, everything is going to be good for the next five years,” said Andrew Thostenson, pesticide program specialist for North Dakota State University Extension. “That's just my concern based on what we've observed to date.”

A Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting review of the EPA documents released as part of its decision found: 

  • Nearly 5,600 farmers reported dicamba damage to Bayer and BASF, makers of dicamba, from 2017-2019, and the EPA estimates this could be as much as a 25-fold underreporting of incidents.
  • A USDA report found that 65,000 soybean fields (4 percent of all soybean farms) across 4.1 million acres were damaged in 2018 alone. This is the largest estimated total of damage yet reported. A 2017 report from University of Missouri weed scientist Kevin Bradley estimated damage that year at 3.6 million acres.
  • State ag departments are suffering from “dicamba fatigue” as they investigate the complaints and have spent millions of dollars doing so each year. The report also said that state agencies are so focused on dicamba that they are having difficulty meeting other regulatory standards for issues like worker protection and training. The state of Indiana, for example, spent $1.2 million in 2017, $2.2 million in 2018 and $800,000 in 2019. 
  • More than half of crop research stations from the Weed Science Society of America saw damage in 2019, and 30% reported monetary losses.

Conservationists, whose lawsuit successfully got the pesticide banned in June, have pledged to sue again. 

In making the June decision to ban the pesticide, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the EPA failed to properly consider harms to thousands of farmers and had an absence of substantial evidence to support approving the pesticide. The court immediately vacated the registration, but the EPA allowed continued spraying through this growing season.

Extent of the damage

Farmers have suffered in recent years as dicamba has drifted from their neighbors’ fields and damaged their crops. Earlier this year, Bayer reached a $400 million settlement with farmers damaged by dicamba in the past few years.

Between 2017 and 2019, 5,600 farmers filed complaints with Bayer and BASF about their crops being damaged. These farmers reported damage to peaches, cotton, tobacco, tomatoes, trees, sunflowers and many other crops. The EPA said it is unable to quantify the monetary losses.

The extent of the damage went beyond farm fields. A report from the Arkansas Audubon Society found dicamba damage to plants in 86 natural areas. A report from the Illinois-based environmental nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network also found herbicide damage similar to dicamba at dozens of locations across the state.

Bayer and BASF have also blamed farmers illegally spraying older versions of dicamba on the damage. According to a USDA survey, more than half of dicamba applications in 2018 were of older versions of dicamba that are more likely to volatilize — or turn into a gas and spread — and illegal to spray on the genetically modified crops.

In a document justifying its decision, the EPA said it would expect the damage to continue, even if they did not approve the new dicamba formulations because of continued illegal spraying.

This year’s changes

For years, Bayer and BASF have denied that volatility is a problem with their new formulations of dicamba.

However, the EPA is taking several measures to address volatility with the new label, including requiring a volatility reduction agent, requiring a 57-foot omni-directional buffer when dicamba is sprayed in areas where endangered species are present and implementing a cut-off date after which dicamba cannot be sprayed. 

The cut-off date requirement is designed to ensure that dicamba is sprayed in lower temperatures, the EPA said. More than four-out-of-five off-target movement incidents happened above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, documents show.

About 60% of damage incidents have been reported after June 30, the new cut-off date; however, symptoms of dicamba damage can take two weeks to show up. Many states have implemented cut-off dates, with varying luck at preventing dicamba damage.

The EPA has also required all farmers use a chemical that reduces the chances dicamba will volatize.Studies show this chemical is 89% effective at staying within the EPA’s required buffer.

Drift, which occurs when a weed killer is blown by the wind while it is being sprayed, is also a significant issue that the EPA’s changes address. The EPA increased a downwind buffer from 110 feet to 240 feet. The agency also increased the distance to 310 feet in counties where endangered species are present. 

Evidence in the decision supporting the registration shows that 25.1% of damage reports with a known distance from a source of dicamba occurred at distances greater than 110 feet, the previous buffer. Some damage was reported more than a mile and a half from a dicamba source.

"When used in combination as required, the suite of control measures has been determined to be protective with 90% confidence," said an EPA memo supporting the decision.

Proposed changes still complicate spraying

The label that was vacated by the Ninth Circuit was nearly impossible to follow, yet Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, said the new label isn’t much better.

“It’s not easy to follow,” Payne said. 

The large downwind buffers means sprayers will often have to spray one day and then come back a different day when the wind is blowing a different direction, she said. Payne said she could see the buffer issues leading to more interest in competing weed control systems like Corteva’s Enlist (resistant to 2,4-D), BASF’s LibertyLink (resistant to glufosinate) and Bayer’s new XtendFlex soybeans (resistant to dicamba and glufosinate). 

“Management is still very much a challenge with this,” Payne said.

In fields with glyphosate-resistant weeds, farmers are likely to see 14% less revenue, the EPA found. The EPA said it received many letters from farm organizations asking for dicamba to be able to be used on these weeds because of these losses.

An EPA financial assessment used to justify the decision found that Bayer’s dicamba-tolerant soybeans are likely to make farmers more money than Corteva’s 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans.

However, states haven’t seen as much damage with the 2,4-D system. 

Illinois, the nation’s leading soybean producing state, has seen more dicamba damage than any other, with more than 1,450 complaints from 2017-2019. The state has attempted to address the damage with a cut-off date and increased training, but farmers had more than 700 damage reports in 2019. In 2020, with a June 25 cut-off date, Illinois had 149 dicamba-related complaints.

In 2020, 2,4-D-resistant crops made up 30% of soybeans, yet the state received zero complaints, Payne said. She said there are never any issues with glufosinate, either. 

One argument made in recent years has been that many farmers are planting dicamba-tolerant crops defensively, or as a way to make sure they are not damaged by other farmers spraying the weed killer. 

The EPA’s decision provides evidence for this. 

In 2018, only 51% percent of farmers sprayed dicamba on dicamba-tolerant crops. By comparison, more than 90% of farmers sprayed the associated herbicides on the crop’s two largest competitors, glyphosate-resistant crops and glufosinate-resistant crops.

Even with the label changes, Payne said she still expects “coexistence issues” between dicamba sprayers and farmers whose crops are not resistant to dicamba, as well as with homeowners and gardeners.

“Coexistence issues are as serious as they've always been,” Payne said.