Buzz Kill

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Agriculture department officials acknowledge that they have repeat offenders who need to be regulated differently, yet they seem mired in a system that favors industry over public safety. Leaders from industry, the Legislature and the department are reluctant to push for change.

"We do our best to make sure we know what people are doing," says Peterson. "By doing this, people are always on their toes, and we have compliance with the law."

The auditor general didn't find that to be true. Besides finding that penalties are too low to deter violators, auditors also found that regulators almost never know when or where crop dusting will take place. Pilots, even chronic violators, don't have to report what they sprayed until they've hit -- or missed -- their targets.

Setting up a system like the one in California, where all pilots must get permission ahead of time to spray, would not be worthwhile, department officials in Arizona say, because less than 1 percent of the estimated 30,000 pesticide applications ever result in a complaint. Asked several times about monitoring repeat offenders -- a recommendation of the auditor general -- Peterson agreed that it should be done. But he wouldn't make any promises.

"Our people are busy all the time," says Peterson. "We'd have to look at the priority of things and decide."

What regulators do want to change are the definitions of serious and non-serious violations so more violators could be kicked into the serious category. They want more gradation in the point system, assigning more points for a higher level of misconduct.

Under the current system, they say they are hamstrung in calculating penalties by the ranges set by state lawmakers. Increasing those ranges -- another recommendation by the auditor -- would require a proposal to the Legislature. Department officials say they would support increased fines if lawmakers approved them, but they refuse to make such a proposal themselves, saying it is not their place to do so.

A proposal from the Legislature, however, appears unlikely, given the stance of a key lawmaker.

"What [fines] we have now are adequate to get their attention," says Representative Mike Gleason, R-Sun City West, chairman of the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee. Gleason has a doctorate in plant physiology and 50 years of experience in agriculture.

"These guys [crop dusters] are professional, by and large, and they do a good job. It's more a matter of being able to identify these people [who violate pesticide application laws], and go out and talk to them," Gleason says.

Talking is just about all the department does to pilots who commit violations. Administrative hearings are available if pilots and regulators disagree on discipline, but officials say they can recall only one such hearing in the last decade. Most cases are settled over the telephone. Pilots sign a consent agreement and send a check.

"We can be heavy-handed when we want to be, but our emphasis is compliance," says Sheldon Jones, director of the department. Inspections of pesticide sellers, buyers and applicators maintain oversight of the industry, he says.

Gleason says Jones has turned the department around, reorganizing the agency so that staffers are accountable to department heads instead of members of industry. (Before there was one agriculture department, industry leaders were often put in charge of separate agriculture commissions.)

But there are signs that the agency is still closely tied to the industry. The department has opened up its rules for revision, using a process dominated by a long list of people who either work for the department or have ties to the agricultural industry. Thirty-three people, including representatives from the Arizona Farm Bureau, the Arizona Cotton Growers Association and the Arizona Crop Protection Association, are updated by e-mail as the revisions progress. Penalties haven't come up yet.

"I don't think anyone is going to come out and support penalty increases," says Marilyn Martin, executive director of the Arizona Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticide industry and people who are certified to advise farmers of which chemicals to apply. "We'd really raise our eyebrows at raising penalties on anyone."

Peterson says the department is getting input from all sides and plans to hold public meetings before the formal rule-changing process begins.

Some biologists say fish are the environmental equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. Fish die instantly when exposed to many chemicals and are especially sensitive to pesticides, which are water soluble and ingested immediately through their gills, says Tony Porti, a research specialist and aquaculturist for the Maricopa Agricultural Research Center.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley