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Regulators pursue cause: Drift complaints bust recent trend

If Mississippi aerial applicators had been able to continue the five-year trend on drift complaints this spring, investigators with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Plant Industry and the Agricultural Aviation Board would have had little to do.

Since the state of Mississippi revamped the Agricultural Aviation Board in 2002, drift complaints involving aerial applications had been falling by about 50 percent each year — from 34 in 2002 to 19 in 2003, nine in 2004 and six in 2005. But the trend went out the window this spring when the number of complaints spiraled past 50.

“The Bureau of Plant Industry has 20 to 25 investigators, and about a half dozen of those are specifically trained to handle aerial drift complaints,” said Bob Provine, chairman of the Mississippi Ag Aviation Board. “They got overwhelmed this spring.”

Speaking at the Delta Research and Extension Center's first “wagon-less” field day in July, Provine said investigators still aren't sure what happened to cause such an upsurge in drift complaints, particularly on Delta rice farms, last spring.

“When we went from 34 complaints down to six over the last three or four years, we obviously did something right,” said Provine, who owns Provine Helicopter Service in Greenwood, Miss. “This year we obviously did something wrong.”

2006 was not a good year for drift complaints, said Bureau of Plant Industry Director Mike Tagert, who also spoke at the “field” day, which was held indoors at the Charles W. Capps Jr. Entrepreneurial Center at the Stoneville, Miss., research complex for the first time ever.

“We've had 108 complaints this year, most of them involving glyphosate,” said Tagert. “As all of you know, that is a significant increase over what we've had in the last couple of years. We are very, very concerned about this situation.”

Of those 108 complaints, BPI investigators believe that 52 involved airplanes. “Since they involve airplanes, those will be or were referred to the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Board, which investigates all complaints involving aircraft,” said Tagert.

Another 19 complaints are believed to have involved ground application rigs. Fourteen were from an unknown source, and 29 are still under investigation by the Bureau of Plant Industry, which is located in Starkville, Miss.

Tagert and Provine took questions from an audience of about 250 in the Capps Center. DREC officials said they weren't sure whether the large crowd was due to the presentation on glyphosate drift or the fact that attendees didn't have to brave the 95-degree-plus temperatures outside.

One grower said he had seen a number of aerial applicators flying in 30-mile-per-hour winds last spring although the operators had to apply for and receive permits to make the applications between late March and April under Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce guidelines.

“They may have had a permit, but a permit doesn't allow them to make an application under those conditions,” said Provine. “That is against state law.”

“The purpose of the permit is to provide for better recordkeeping,” said Tagert. “So even though you may have a permit, it is still your responsibility to follow the rules and regulations for aerial applications.”

Provine said the Ag Aviation Board is trying to answer two questions about the upsurge in drift complaints: “What caused them and what can we do to prevent them from happening again?”

This isn't the first time the Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Board has had to deal with high numbers of complaints. “In 2000, while EPA was involved, and before Roundup Ready corn was so prevalent, we hit 150 glyphosate drift complaints,” said Tagert.

After the Ag Aviation Board was reorganized, “we came up with new rules and regulations,” he said. “We changed the minimum droplet size that you could use when applying glyphosate by air, and we required better recordkeeping and increased liability insurance coverage.”

Following the latest jump in complaints, the board is soliciting input from growers, manufacturers and anyone else involved in farming to try to determine what happened to cause the complaints to jump from six to more than 50, said Provine.

One possibility, he said, would be to require mandatory downloading of GPS information so that investigators could match the date and time of application with the wind and weather conditions on that date.

Another would be to require operators to request permits for aerial application all season rather than the current six-week timeframe.

At least 99 percent of the ground rig applicators and 99 percent of the pilots “are doing an excellent job,” said Tagert. “But that means very little to a grower who has been hit and has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of herbicide drift.”

He said he is currently reviewing the numbers and locations of the complaints to try to determine patterns.

“We know that 55 percent of our complaints this year are on rice,” he noted. “That tells me we have to determine what we can do to protect the rice grower next year. Can we adjust our permitting period to go further into the rice-growing season?

“We're trying to find the solution to this problem without penalizing all 15,000 private applicators in our state.”

Provine said aircraft operators want to work with the rest of agriculture on the issue. “We know that if we don't regulate ourselves, someone else will,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

Tagert asked growers to provide more input on possible solutions and to report problems when they occur. “If you see someone applying herbicides in a 30 mile-per-hour wind, call me or call one of our Bureau of Plant Industry personnel. We need to know about when you see this happening.”

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