Drift Complaints: What You Should Know

June 9, 2000
Of the 120 or so pesticide misuse complaints received each year by the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA), about 60% of them involve pesticide drift. Across the nation, there is growing concern about pesticide drift and increasing numbers of formal complaints. Whether or not pesticide drift (both reported and unreported) is actually increasing, the bottom line is that formal complaints are on the rise and the IDOA and University of Illinois Extension are being asked to get involved in these complaints more often. Regardless of whether you file a drift complaint or are accused in such a complaint, it's a good idea to know the basics of the complaint process and what resources are available to you.

The IDOA and Extension have important but different roles in assisting citizens of Illinois in dealing with pesticides. These roles are based on the Illinois Department of Agriculture's responsibilities to administer and enforce the laws related to the use of pesticides and University of Illinois Extension's responsibilities to educate and solve problems. This spring, IDOA and Extension took a day to educate one another about their respective roles in drift complaint cases and discussed guidelines for handling drift complaints.

What are the roles of University of Illinois Extension in a drift complaint?

The University of Illinois Extension has a role in education and problem solving. Through the Pesticide Applicator Training (PAT) program and other educational efforts, Extension provides information that helps to prevent drift from occurring in the first place. In a typical year, the PAT program alone reaches more than 14,000 commercial and private pesticide applicators and operators with pesticide safety and drift-reduction information. Surveys indicate that our efforts have a positive impact on the overall safety of the application industry.

As a neutral third party, unit and center-based educators, state specialists, and the University of Illinois Plant Clinic often play a major role in problem solving and diagnosing injury symptoms. Typically, this involves ruling out pest, environmental, or nutritional problems and often ruling out specific classes of herbicides. This type of information is often useful in settling disputes informally. Through informal mediation, many pesticide-drift complaints are resolved before a written complaint is submitted to IDOA or a civil law suit is filed.

If you choose to involve Extension in the process, you should keep two things in mind: (1) problem solving in a drift complaint is complicated, and the outcome may not please either party; and (2) not every Extension staff member is comfortable with identifying (or is trained to identify) herbicide injury and ruling out all the other possible explanations for damage to the range of crops and ornamental plants grown in Illinois. For these reasons, you may be referred to another educator or to a state specialist. In many cases, there simply may not be enough evidence to make a clear-cut decision as to the cause of the damage or enough information to determine the short- or long-term effects of the damage.

To request assistance from Extension, contact your nearest University of Illinois Extension office, which will direct your case to the appropriate educator or specialist. If you send samples to the University of Illinois Plant Clinic directly, please note that the Plant Clinic does not offer opinions on chemical injury to ornamental plants. If chemical injury diagnoses are requested for crop plants, state specialists are consulted to render an opinion based solely on the sample, its symptoms, and facts provided (be sure to include all relevant information). Keep in mind that the Plant Clinic does not perform pesticide-residue tests, and without such tests, the cause of a symptom cannot be attributed to pesticide drift with 100% certainty. However, it is possible for clinic staff and specialists to rule out other possible causes and establish whether the likely cause is drift.

What are the roles of the Illinois Department of Agriculture in a drift complaint?

The IDOA has three roles that impact its handling of pesticide-drift complaints. These roles are (1) education and licensing of applicators and operators via the PAT program, (2) investigation of complaints, and (3) enforcement of pesticide laws. The roles of IDOA are determined by laws and statutes passed by the Illinois legislature or the federal government.

If a written pesticide-drift complaint is submitted to IDOA within 30 days of when the damage was first noticed, then IDOA will investigate the complaint. The investigator assigned to the complaint will collect information and evidence to assist IDOA in determining whether or not pesticide drift occurred. The investigator's role is to remain neutral and collect information, not to determine what caused the injury. Based on information collected by the investigator, IDOA administrators will make a determination of pesticide drift. In its enforcement role, IDOA may send a warning letter to the applicator, assess a fine, or revoke an applicator's license.

How do you respond to signs of pesticide misuse?

Before doing anything, both parties should make an effort to discuss the suspected drift incident and rule out other possible causes of the damage. As previously mentioned, Extension can play a valuable role in this process. In cases where the cause of the damage remains unclear or where the parties will not work together, a formal complaint may be necessary. The pesticide-drift complaint process is started by calling the IDOA's Bureau of Environmental Programs at 1-800-641-3934 (voice and TDD) or (217)785-2427 for a complaint form. Complaint forms must be received by the IDOA within 30 days of the incident or within 30 days of when the damage was first noticed. Complaints filed after that will be kept on record but no administrative action can be taken.

What is the complaint process?

Once a complaint is filed with the department, a field investigator is assigned the case. In most cases, the inspector will interview the complainant and inspect the site. Various types of samples such as plants, water, or soil may be collected for analysis at an approved laboratory. The investigator may also interview applicators in the area, examine pesticide records, and collect weather data in an attempt to determine the nature and cause of the damage. The field investigator will then submit a report to the department for review.

Both parties will receive written notification if the department finds a violation and takes enforcement action. Penalties range from advisory or warning letters to monetary penalties of $750 to $10,000 depending on the type and severity of the violation. Penalties are determined through a point system defined in the Illinois Pesticide Act. Even if a violation of the Illinois Pesticide Act cannot be substantiated, both the complainant and the alleged violator will be notified in writing of the complaint's status. Remember, the department's role in pesticide misuse incidents is limited to determining whether a violation has occurred. IDOA cannot help complainants recover damages.

What are some resources for drift information?

For more information about drift, injury symptoms, and drift-reduction strategies, refer to the Illinois Pesticide Applicator Training Manual: Private Applicator (1999) or the Illinois Pesticide Applicator Training Manual: General Standards (1995). Both manuals are available through your local Extension office. In addition, the Illinois Pesticide Safety Education Web site has a section covering these same topics (www.aces.uiuc.edu/~pse/facts/drift.html). We plan to greatly enhance the drift section, so be sure to visit it periodically for updates.--Bruce Paulsrud, John Masiunas, and Mark Mohr

Author: Bruce Paulsrud Mark Mohr John Masiunas