New Yorkers have now waited more than five years for the 2006 installment of an annual report on pesticide applications in the state, which are required by law and could shed light on potential health risks.
As of the last report in 2005, the DEC has disbursed more than $15 million on this program and is still months away from producing the 2006 report, according to a state Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman. The lag appears to be caused by human error and an understaffed DEC, but at least one environmental advocate blames the pesticide applicators for wasting taxpayer money by filing flawed reports and causing the delay.
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Kathy Curtis, the policy director for the environmental group Clean New York. She suggested that applicators have purposefully hindered the DEC’s ability to compile these reports by submitting data that needs to be corrected. But that theory was not endorsed by a DEC spokeswoman.
Enacted in 1996, the Pesticide Reporting Law requires pesticide applicators to file reports of their work with the DEC. These filings, which are supposed to be packaged by the DEC into a county-by-county breakdown on July 1 each year, include the dosage rate, method of application, target organism and place of application.
“What we wanted was to ban pesticides,” Curtis said of the law’s original intent. “Due to the overwhelming opposition [from the pesticide industry], [the reporting law] was the best environmental advocates in New York could achieve at the time.”
Instead of getting restrictions on the use of pesticides, environmental and public health advocates settled for reporting requirements that they hoped would generate data that could be used to build a case against pesticide use in New York. One potential use, Curtis said, would be to demonstrate a correlation between cases of cancer and pesticide applications.
“[We] thought reporting would lead to the reduction of pesticide use,” she said. “It was a stepping stone, an incremental step in the right direction.”
The information proved to be useful early on, with the filings erasing the myth that most pesticide applications in the state were used for agricultural purposes. “It was very revolutionary getting this data,” said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
According to Haight, the information revealed that most of the state’s pesticide use was in urban areas. This revelation was documented in three successive reports from 1997 to 1999 by NYPIRG, which all noted that pesticide use was the heaviest in densely populated downstate counties and in urban upstate counties. “It gave us a blurry snapshot about what [was] going on,” she said.
Haight also credited the data with helping to advance the posting of commercial applications through the Neighbor Notification Law of 2000.
But there isn’t any data available after 2005, which DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said was the result of repeated errors in the filings that were first noticed in 2008. She said errors can occur in a variety of ways, including the reporting of diluted quantities instead of undiluted quantities of products. Additionally, some companies list the same amount of application for every address, when the amount should vary depending on the size of the property, and in other instances the quantity reported can be vague, such as “a big bag or a large can.”
“Through our quality assurance process, we discovered numerous errors in the 2006 data as well as the data submitted for subsequent years,” DeSantis said in an email exchange. “We reached out to the companies and are working with them to get the data corrected.”
Another reason for the errors, said NYPIRG’s Haight, is the result of the filing process, which isn’t required to be done via electronic submission. She said the transition process is where the mistakes happen and noted that it is costly to the state, as it is outsourced to a foreign country. Since the program’s inception in 1997, the data conversion process alone has cost the state more than $7 million.
The idea of a flawed conversion process was rejected by Robert Warfield, assistant project manager for the Pesticide Sales and Use Reporting Database Group that is run by Cornell University and works with the DEC on this issue. He said that a bulk of their data is filed electronically and the remaining paper submissions are converted effectively by workers in China. “They do a good job. A very good job as a matter of fact,” he said.
There are problems with submissions, though, with Warfield acknowledging that every year there are repeat offenders who don’t file correctly. Describing the filing process as nine basic columns of information, he said filers will leave out one of the mandatory categories, such as the ZIP code or county.
“There are people we have to go back to time and time again,” Warfield said. “It’s kind of a learning curve.”
One problem is people filing the same report for a location year after year, while just changing the date to make it current.
Warfield said they noticed that some of the application dates were on Sundays, which raised a red flag and led to them uncovering this practice.
After five years with the state filing no report on pesticide applications, it is not clear how much they are missed.
The information was basically available in three forms prior to 2006 — county breakdowns assembled by the DEC, raw and organized information presented by Cornell University and in a very detailed and confidential fashion by the state Department of Health.
By request, the Department of Health provided cancer researchers with time- and house-specific breakdowns of applications.
Since 1998 there have only been five requests for this confidential data, with four being approved, according to a department spokesman.
This is in sharp contrast to the data cultivated by Cornell University, which receives many more requests for data, primarily from the DEC, but also the Department of Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
It is possible that the lack of interest in the state’s reports could stem from how the information is packaged, with NYPIRG’s Haight arguing the form is problematic and lacks “a whole lot of utility.” She credited Cornell University with assembling the data in a meaningful way.
DEC STAFF CUTS
Even with the state spending an average of almost $3 million a year on this program, people familiar with its implementation suggest that it is suffering from a lack of resources and attention in the DEC.DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said the program used to be staffed by at least 10 people, but because of staff reductions and hiring freezes, there are one or two staffers trying to handle the increasing workload.
She also said that the funding for this program is drying up, with recent budgets for this program of about $575,000 per year, which are then augmented by funds from the Environmental Protection Fund. Even after supplementing their budget, the DEC still can’t get up to date on its annual pesticide reports. Severino noted that the EPF money is scheduled to essentially run out next year and will leave this program in a more precarious position.
Curtis of Clean New York said the DEC has been disproportionately hurt by recent state budget cuts, which have subverted the public’s interests. “I sympathize with the DEC’s limited resources and its regulatory burden,” she said. “[It’s a] shame for this information to not be available to the public.