Paul Reynolds sprays fungicide in Champaign County, Illinois, on Wednesday, July14, 2010. photo by Heather Coit, The News-Gazette

Top takeaways:

* The new law ensures a minimum fine for violators who are found to have sprayed humans.

* For events where five or more people are exposed, pesticide applicators could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

* The legislation took years to negotiate.

Pesticide applicators in Illinois are now subject to higher fines for exposing humans to the harmful chemicals. 

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law Friday the new legislation that was spurred by a 2019 incident in which a helicopter and a plane sprayed dozens of farmworkers with pesticides, causing health problems for the workers and their infant children. Previously, under the old fine system, applicators who exposed humans to pesticides could escape with little-to-no monetary penalties.

“We want to make sure that bad actors are being held accountable,” said Rep. Dagmara Avelar, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the state House of Representatives the last couple years. “It is because of bad actors that we had to pass this legislation.”

Rep. Dagmara Avelar. photo: Illinois General Assembly website

In the 2019 incident, the companies that owned the helicopter and plane were each fined $750. Now, if the state finds applicators acted similarly, the fine could be thousands or tens of thousands of dollars depending on the number of people exposed. 

Illinois uses a point system to assign fines to pesticide violators. More points result in a higher fine. Under the old system, spraying a human — the law didn’t take into account how many — was worth the same number of points as spraying without a permit or falsifying records. 

The new law ensures that violators who expose people will face stiffer penalties on an escalating scale: $500 per person if one to two people are exposed; $750 per person for three to four people; and $1,250 per person if five or more are exposed.

“Previously, there was no minimum fine for human exposure,” said David McEllis, the Illinois legislative director for Environmental Law & Policy Center, or ELPC, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “We think it’s significant that there is now a definite fine for human exposure, as opposed to just being a portion of the point system.”

The legislators and groups who pushed for the increased fines said it would benefit farmworkers, whose work often means they are in fields that were or will be sprayed with pesticides.

The 2019 incident “was a complete disregard for their health, for their humanity, for their contributions to our society. These people feed us every day,” said Sen. Karina Villa, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the state senate. “This bill was maybe a miniature bill for others, but it’s a big deal for the migrants that come to work our fields. This piece of legislation was for them.”

Sen. Karina Villa. photo: Illinois General Assembly website

The new law will hopefully serve as a deterrent in cases such as the incident in 2019, said Howard Learner, the ELPC’s executive director.

“We fine people for speeding on highways because it puts other drivers’ health at risk,” he said. “This is a case where the fines need to be substantial and serious so that pesticide sprayers are more careful and less likely to put migrant farmworkers’ health at risk.”

ELPC was one of a few groups, including the Illinois Environmental Council and Legal Action Chicago, that lobbied for the bill over the past three legislative sessions. Among others, ELPC and Legal Aid Chicago — a partner organization of Legal Action — also filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the pesticide applicators on behalf of the sprayed workers. The case is ongoing.

“We’re really hopeful it will have a significant impact on our clients,” said Lisa Palumbo, the director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, said of the new law. She is also one of the attorneys representing the workers who were sprayed in 2019. 

Learner called the lobbying and the lawsuit a “one-two punch of making a difference.”

Years of negotiating

The original legislation was introduced in 2021, and it took a lot of negotiating to get to its enactment Friday, those involved said.

The legislation’s original version aimed to make an initial fine of $2,500 for spraying just one human, plus $1,000 for each additional person affected. It also made no distinction between whether the sprayer had acted in accordance with the pesticide’s label, a long list of do’s and don’t’s that governs how applicators spray. 

The Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, which represents pesticide applicators, had opposed the legislation in the past. But they dropped their opposition after the bill sponsors agreed to assess fines only in cases where applicators sprayed “off-label,” Kevin Johnson, the chemical association’s president, said earlier this year.

Villa said she spent “over 40 hours in negotiation meetings every year” with the farm bureau and chemical association. The main sticking point, she said, was in what situation someone could be fined. 

Villa said the legislation’s opponents wanted the standard for a fine to be that the applicator acted “willfully and wantonly” when spraying pesticides that exposed humans. 

“That would have been impossible to prove,” she said. “The standard now is so amazing. It’s anything off-label. The fight that we had was I said, ‘I am not negotiating a bill in which the standard is impossible to meet.’ That’s why it took three years to pass this legislation.”

Villa also said a change in leadership in the senate agriculture committee helped. When Sen. Doris Turner, a Democrat, became the chair of the ag committee, Turner promised Villa her bill would be debated. 

“When you have these changes come about, sometimes legislation that could have seemed impossible, all of a sudden, there’s a possiblity for them to find a way to be passed,” Villa said. 

Kevin Semlow, the director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said there were a lot of “inconsistencies” in the original bill.

“The sponsors made it very clear that their goal was to penalize those that sprayed more individuals, and the original legislation didn’t quite reflect their original intent,” he said. “So after negotiations, the current legislation reflects the intent of the sponsors that we can live with.”

Overall, the legislation was a compromise that “confirms our position,” which is that no “individual should be sprayed on directly,” Semlow said.

Sourcing & Methodology Statement:

Interview with David McEllis, Illinois legislative director for Environmental Law & Policy Center. 6/12/2023.
Interview witth Rep. Dagmara Avelar, Illinois state representative. 6/12/2023.
Interview with Howard Learner, executive director of Environmental Law & Policy Center. 6/12/2023.
Interview with Kevin Semlow, director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau. 6/12/2023.
Interview with Lisa Palumbo, director of Legal Aid Chicago’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. 6/12/2023.
Interview with Sen. Karina Villa, Illinois state senator. 6/12/2023.
How Illinois’ ‘fragmented system’ of monitoring pesticide exposure ‘allows individuals to get poisoned over and over without any brakes’. Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest, and Amanda Perez Pintado, Investigate Midwest/Report for America. 4/14/2022.
Legislation to increase penalties for spraying people with pesticides advances in Illinois statehouse. Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest. 4/3/2023.

Type of work:

News Article Article pages that do not meet specifications for other Trust Project Type of Work labels and also do not fit within the general news category.

Sky Chadde has covered the agriculture industry for Investigate Midwest since 2019 and spent much of 2020 focused on the crisis of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, which included collecting and analyzing...