A class-action lawsuit filed last week in a southern Illinois court is threatening to change a long-standing Kansas farming practice.
The suit, organized and filed by a Texas law firm, represents nearly 100 cities, counties and water systems —including 16 water systems in Kansas— that feel their drinking water has been compromised by farmers’ use of one of the most common herbicides, atrazine.
The suit’s plaintiffs say they are simply asking for funds to clean their water systems but those in the agriculture industry believe the lawsuit could lead to a change in farming practices and is the first in a potentially long series of lawsuits aimed at changing the farming industry.
“I think there is a good chance of change in use regulations because of this lawsuit,” said Kansas Corn Growers Association spokesperson Sue Schulte. “I believe there is a good chance our farmers won’t be able to use (atrizine) if this lawsuit is successful.”
 
EPA Approval
For nearly 60 years, American corn, soybean and grain sorghum producers have used atrazine to control grassy and broadleaf weeds in the field.
Atrazine is used by nearly 75 percent of all producers in Kansas and the U.S. with more than 75 million pounds of the herbicide applied annually. The product is one of the most cost-effective methods of controlling weeds in the field and is an important, low-cost weapon in fighting weeds on many Kansas farms. Many producers also prefer atrazine because it does not bind to the soil.
The herbicide was tested and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when it first hit the market in the late 1950s. In a 2006 risk assessment, the EPA again gave atrazine a favorable rating and found that it posed no harm to the general population. The federal drinking water standard for atrazine in 3 parts-per-billion. There have been no violations of the standard in the U.S. during the past three years. But cries from environmental groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council, Land Stewardship Project and Pesticide Action Network North America, which believe the herbicide is not safe for human consumption, have lead the EPA to begin a reevaluation of atrazine as part of a series of Scientific Advisory Panels, which began in February. The EPA’s findings have not been released.
 
Proven Effects
The lawsuit, filed against atrazine producer Syngenta, focuses on the herbicide’s effect on public water sources. The suit cites studies that link atrazine ingestion to long-term health condition. The studies have not been proven conclusive but case attorneys believe they show probable cause for concern. Atrazine levels in many of the cities involved in the lawsuit, including Hillsboro, do not and have never exceeded federal limits.
From 1995 to 2007, atrazine levels in Hillsboro’s water measured between 0.8 parts-per-billion and 1.2 parts-per-billion, well below the allowable levels. But Hillsboro city administrator Larry Paine said he believes taking part in the lawsuit can only benefit the city.
“Anything we can do to remove atrazine would be a good thing for customers,” Paine said of signing on to the suit.
But the plaintiffs contend even small levels of exposure to the herbicide, over long periods of time, can have negative consequences. And cities participating in the suit have been told they will bear no financial burden for the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are asking for a total of up to $5 million to use to ride their water supplies of atrazine.
 
Fighting Back
Kansas Corn Growers Association executive director Jere White said the city’s willingness to join such a lawsuit is a cause for concern.
"What concerns me is that these city councils only heard one-sided information provided by the Texas law firm of Baron and Budd, which will reportedly collect a third of any winnings of the lawsuit," White said. "Why not also get information from experts that don't have a monetary interest, like Kansas Department of Health and Environment or EPA?"
Schulte said she is perplexed at the logic of cities, like Hillsboro, that have joined the suit but have no record of atrazine levels exceeding federal limits. And fears that the “because it sounds good” mentality will lead to other lawsuits aiming to change farming practices. Many law firms leading the charge on class-action suits are linked to well-funded activist groups that have a goal of change, and eliminating, many farming and ranching practices.
“Their agenda is not just atrazine,” Schulte said of the activists groups behind the lawsuit.
But agricultural activists groups are putting up their own fight. Members of the McPherson County Farm Bureau board sent letters to the government bodies of each of the county’s cities to ask them, if contacted by the law firm behind the suit, to consider both sides of the issue.
A large coalition of agriculture groups have written EPA administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to consider atrazine’s impact on the agricultural community during the panel reviews of the herbicide.
“We want to set the record straight on the agriculture community’s broad support of this very effective herbicide that has been used by farmers for more than 50 years,” White said in the group’s appeal to Jackson. “Atrazine is used on more than one-half of all U.S. corn and two-thirds of sorghum. It is one of the primary elements that make American agriculture so phenomenally productive. Every EPA Administration since the EPA was founded – Republican and Democrat – has endorsed atrazine’s safety and that is why we join together to pledge our support and confidence in this product.”
An earlier study conducted by the EPA showed that without atrazine, U.S. farmers would lose $28 per-acre in yield declines which would amount to nearly $2 billion is loses from declines in yields nation-wide.