In the interim between legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee will have an opportunity to examine an important but under-the-radar problem that’s making people sick in farming communities across the state. Then again, their attention might drift.
Pesticide drift occurs when crop dusters—pilots or tractor drivers hired by farmers to spray pesticides on fields to kill weeds and bugs—miss the mark and inadvertently deliver a cloud of poison to people, plants, and animals. Since 2013, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) has fielded roughly 1,300 complaints of pesticide drift affecting trees, gardens, crops, and animals. In more than 200 of those complaints, people said they were directly exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals. Complainants reported asthma attacks, bleeding gums, headaches, burning rashes, vomiting, and diarrhea.
In 2019, TDA received 180 agricultural pesticide complaints, most of which involved allegations of pesticide drift. In July, a man in the East Texas town of Canton reported to TDA that a crop duster drifted poison onto him while spraying a pasture. “Complainant can smell and taste the pesticide and has symptoms such as eyes burning and problems breathing,” reads the report, obtained via a state open records request. A Brownsville man reported in June that after a pesticide was applied nearby, he and his family felt their eyes burning and rushed to the emergency room.
But outgoing Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen didn’t instruct lawmakers to examine how rural people’s health is jeopardized when pesticides go drifting. He didn’t urge them to probe TDA’s enforcement division, which issues paltry fines to offenders and allows them to keep spraying. Instead, Bonnen directed the committee to dig into how the problem is eating into Big Ag’s balance sheet. Members should “evaluate the impact on quality, production, and market value” of non-target crops hit by poison and consider “the cost of false claims of drift on producers,” according to Bonnen’s interim charges sent to lawmakers in November.
A committee hearing on pesticide drift was initially scheduled for this spring, but all meetings have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No new meeting date has been set.
An aide for state Representative Drew Springer, the Muenster Republican who chairs the committee, said members have wide latitude to explore subjects outside of what’s specified in the interim charges. The aide said, however, that human health problems may not come under scrutiny in the hearing because committee members “may feel like they’re getting into the jurisdiction” of the House Public Health Committee. Representative Charles “Doc” Anderson, a Republican from Waco, said he would consider testimony from people made sick by pesticide drift, “but in that regard it may be for a different committee,” he told the Observer. Problem is, the Public Health Committee has no charge to study the problem.
Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said he was “excited” last year when he discovered that the Agriculture Committee would be taking up the issue—until he saw that a portion of the hearing would involve discussing allegedly false claims of pesticide drift. “I wondered, ‘What direction would that go? Is it just about protecting Big Ag producers from liability?’” he said. The TDA told the Observer that it has conducted no studies to suggest that crop dusters are suffering from made-up drift claims.
Metzger said that he hopes to be allowed to testify about the human health effects of pesticide drift. If not, he and others will likely have to wait even longer to air their grievances.
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