Now that he’s at the helm of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Jerry Costello has three clear legislative priorities: dicamba, LMFA and anhydrous safety.
Obviously, the coronavirus outbreak may add to his list, but in the short run, it may also make it easier to get things done. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 legislative session was shortened; instead of meeting from Jan. 8 through May 31, the Legislature suspended its session on March 16 through April 21.
“I’m not anticipating this but trying to be ready for the fact that this could a very short legislative session,” Costello says. “Priorities for agencies and legislators could be pared down to a very minimum, which means some things can be done through the agency — with rules instead of having to address legislatively.”
The Livestock Management Facilities Act is on Costello’s mind in particular. Enacted in 1996, the LMFA sets standards for all new and expanded livestock farms in the state, designed to protect the environment and the rights of neighbors and farmers. Inspections and the permitting process are carried out by IDOA.
“My goal as director is to make sure the LMFA is preserved as is,” Costello says, pointing to his past work to protect the law in the Legislature.
“The LMFA is so important and crucial to the industry,” he adds. “It’s important to farmers and other residents of the state to be responsible neighbors.”
Referring to the 700-plus off-target dicamba herbicide complaints that came to IDOA last year, Costello says the number must come down in 2020. The 2019 number was up from 330 complaints in 2018 and 246 in 2017.
“We have to bring that number down drastically,” he says, but he’s also realistic about the difficulty of measuring the problem in unusual years like 2019. “My concern is trying to quantify that number this year, given what the weather outlook is.”
In 2019, IDOA set a June 30 cutoff for in-season dicamba application, and then extended it to July 15 in light of the late planting season. The department set a June 20 cutoff for 2020, and Costello says he’s open to reevaluating it if necessary.
He points to both farmer complaints regarding injured soybeans and complaints from others regarding tree, vineyard and specialty crop damage. “It’s something we have to take extremely seriously.”
Costello says he’s been relying on experts in the department, as well as people in the industry, farmers and other scientists. He’s also met with farm and fertilizer groups. “You have to take it all in and look at the good the product does versus the possible other effects it may be having,” he says.
In light of the quarantine, IDOA is extending pesticide licenses for one year. All training and testing clinics for the remainder of the clinic season are canceled, and all applicator, operator and dealer licenses that expired Dec. 31, 2019, will be valid through Dec. 31, 2020. Training and testing opportunities will be available for new applicators.
A new bill introduced by Rep. Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee, would require a training program for farmers regarding safe handling of anhydrous ammonia, amending the Illinois Fertilizer Act of 1961. Farmers are currently not required to complete any kind of anhydrous training; under this bill, they would undergo the training every three years. The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association supports the bill.
Costello does, too, but he wants to make sure there’s both online and in-person training available; the bill currently only asks for in-person training. He’s hopeful they can use a rule to add an online training option.
The bill comes in response to the anhydrous spill in Lake County, Ill., last year that left over 40 people sickened — many of them first responders.
“We have to balance the best course of action and public safety,” Costello says.