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Then he saw something more frightening: fishermen dipping their nets into the canal, scooping out the floating fish and loading them into their vehicles for food. Ellis says he ran up to them, pleading with as many as he could not to take the poisoned fish, but more people were coming to the water as he spoke, and he wasn't sure if he stopped everyone in time.
The incident was reported to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which turned over the case to the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
The fishermen apparently meant little to the department. Daniel Bossard of Pierce Aviation, the offending pilot, received points for killing fish and for knowingly committing the violation. No points were assigned for evidence of human exposure, water contamination (the pesticides Lorsban and Thiodan were detected), or bird kills (Middleton found a dead turkey vulture near the canal, which wasn't retrieved or tested by the department).
Asked about the void of penalties for possible human harm, given the water and fish contamination, Peterson says that aspect was considered, but the department threw up its hands when it discovered that the canal, the water and the fish all belonged to Paloma Partners Ranch. "Those people [the fishermen] would have been trespassing," says Peterson. Had it been a public water source, which it wasn't, the outcome would have been different, he added.
Bossard's violation, his fourth complaint since 1990, was deemed non-serious, and the department fined him $113. His case history includes investigations into the spraying of a trailer park and its pool area in September 1991, and pesticide drift onto a romaine lettuce field in March 1994. Further information was not available because of the destruction of paper files after five years.
Bossard was not surprised by the fish kill, according to an investigator's report. Although winds were calm, and nothing unusual happened, Bossard told the investigator he faced a number of obstacles: fish stocked close to a cotton field, a pesticide that tends to hang in the air, and humidity that makes drift hard to avoid.
"We'll never be able to get away from drift. It's going to be there," says Pew, the pilot whose pesticide drift killed neighbors' fish in Florence and fish in an SRP canal in Chandler.
Nonetheless, the industry has made changes to minimize drift, he says. Booms on planes have been shortened for a more narrow line of spray that's easier to control. Nozzles are larger, creating large droplets that hit their target better than a fine mist. And flaggers who used to stand in the field, marking off rows, have been replaced with cockpit satellite positioning systems, which outline the pilot's route.
"We're not renegades out there running around," says Pew, a Mesa native who started his crop-dusting business in Coolidge nearly two decades ago. "The cowboys are gone. This is a highly sophisticated, expensive business."
Pilots routinely postpone applications when the winds aren't right, Pew says, and they will turn down jobs if nearby homes or other obstacles make spraying too tricky.
Arizona has buffer zones that restrict pesticide applications within one-fourth mile of schools and day-care centers. In designated urban areas next to farmland, pilots must notify the state 24 hours before spraying.
But the state's crop-dusting industry is shrinking, putting pressure on crop dusters to take jobs if they can.
Several decades ago, there were 60 crop-dusting companies in Arizona. Today there are 17. Farmland is shrinking, and what's left is farmed with new pesticides that require fewer applications. The widespread use of bt cotton, genetically engineered to produce a toxin that kills the dreaded pink bollworm, has reduced the need for pesticides on Arizona's largest cash crop.
On the perimeters of Phoenix, farmers are more likely to use ground rigs than an airplane to apply pesticide, sparing the farmer headaches when neighbors complain about a plane spraying nearby.
"Our family made a commitment to do everything by ground," says Kevin Rogers, a fourth-generation farmer on land in Mesa, Scottsdale and Laveen. "It makes us better neighbors because we're so close to town."
With fewer pesticide-spraying companies competing for less business, pilots admit the combination can lead to risk-taking. Jobs that aerial applicators might have rejected as too close to a home or a fish pond are flown to keep their business going.
Even as pesticide use drops, farmers don't want to lose the option of aerial spraying.
While the use of many chemical compounds has dropped dramatically, the application of others, including Methamidophos (used on cotton, potatoes and tomatoes) and Imidacloprid (used on vegetables, fruits and other crops), has remained steady.
Davis of the Arizona Agricultural Aviation Association says the industry is just becoming more specialized. Aerial applicators will always be relied upon for certain types of crops in rural Arizona, which is the nation's top producer of iceberg and romaine lettuce during the winter months.
Rogers, the Valley farmer, says even though his pesticide use has dropped as much as 80 percent, he and other growers fear that bugs will become resistant to bt cotton and new pesticides. They don't want to lose the option of spraying by air.