Politics trumps science on ground water rules

Bill Berry, Capital Times, Wisconsin, October 3, 2006
STEVENS POINT – My how times have changed. When the state of Wisconsin established landmark ground water quality legislation in the mid-1980s, the wisdom of people like Dr. Henry Anderson was called upon to help make difficult and balanced decisions.
Anderson is chief medical officer of the Division of Public Health in the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services and a nationally recognized expert on public health. Apparently the Legislature isn’t impressed.
Based on studies by Anderson’s division and the federal government, the Wisconsin DNR recommended a standard of 20 parts per billion for the chemical alachlor ESA, used by some farmers, and manufactured by Monsanto under the brand name Lasso. It’s a process that has worked hundreds of times as the DNR, the Department of Health and Family Services and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection share responsibilities for protecting Wisconsin ground water.
But some in the Wisconsin Legislature have decided they’re smarter that the professionals. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules killed the proposed health standard this month. Since the state’s ground water law was passed in 1984, health standards have been set for 130 chemicals, but this marked the first time the Legislature has killed a regulation on an agricultural chemical sought by state health and environmental agencies.
At the forefront of efforts to kill the regulation was Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, co-chairman of the rules committee. This is the same legislator who claims expertise in endangered species issues, fighting with the DNR to de-list the Butler garter snake from the state’s list of threatened species so that development might proceed in the Milwaukee suburbs.
Grothman, an attorney, offered his own scientific appraisal of Lasso, saying he believes there is little danger from the chemical at the levels it is found in most wells. He added that few wells tested in the state actually exceeded the proposed standard of 20 parts per billion.
Going back to the old well of anti-DNR sentiment, Grothman took a whack at the department, saying among other things that “they just don’t like people or what people do.” With Lasso showing up in 28 percent of state private wells and 40 percent of the wells in southern agricultural areas, one is left to wonder whether it’s Grothman who doesn’t like people.
Wisconsin’s ground water law isn’t perfect. It’s complicated, mostly because of overlapping state agency responsibilities. But it is generally recognized as being fair. It came about because of problems in central Wisconsin, where the potato beetle pesticide aldicarb was getting into ground water below potato fields.
It was a nasty fight at times, and those who didn’t want the chemical regulated said the same things Grothman is saying today.
In a small sense, this is much ado about nothing. Use of alachlor continues to decline in the state, although it persists in wells years after use. In general, farmers and agribusinesses are more sensitive today to concerns about water quality than ever before. Frankly, farming is a lot more endangered by the kind of sprawling development Grothman seeks to promote by writing off a little garter snake than it is by a safety standard for a chemical.
One of the lessons from the 1984 ground water bill is that cooperation is possible. Everyone was at the table when it was formulated. The law certainly hasn’t hurt Wisconsin agriculture in the intervening years. If anything, it has helped to raise the profile of good agricultural stewardship. When it came time to develop a law that addresses state water quantity issues a few years ago, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association was a leader in the effort, working closely with state agencies and other partners, including the River Alliance of Wisconsin.
Perhaps the central concern in the alachlor flap is that when politics trumps science, there’s something wrong, and that’s what has happened here. When the work of experts like Henry Anderson can be scoffed at by the Legislature, we are asking for trouble.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this column posted online incorrectly stated that Monsanto was the manufacturer of the pesticide aldicarb. Union Carbide was the manufacturer in the 1980s when the chemical reached ground water in Wisconsin wells. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers, it is now owned and produced by Bayer CropScience.
Bill Berry, a veteran journalist, writes regularly for The Capital Times, with a particular focus on northern Wisconsin and rural issues. E-mail: billnick@charter.net

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