Each year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) receives approximately 120 pesticide misuse complaints, of which 60% are pesticide drift complaints. Neighborly discussions before pesticides are applied are important so applicators understand if sensitive plants are growing near the application site. In the unfortunate case that drift has occurred, it’s a good idea to know the basics of the complaint process and what resources are available to you.
Before doing anything, both parties should make an effort to discuss the suspected drift incident and rule out other possible causes of the damage. 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 IDOA and University of Illinois Extension have important but different roles in assisting citizens of Illinois in dealing with pesticides. These roles are based on the IDOA’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.
You may send affected plant samples to the University of Illinois Plant Clinic. For information on how to do so, go to http://web.extension.illinois.edu/plantclinic/. Be sure to include as much relevant information as possible. 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.
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 Pesticide Safety Education 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 you choose to file a complaint with IDOA, time is of the essence. The pesticide drift complaint process is started by filling out a complaint form which can be found at: https://www.agr.state.il.us/pdf/pesticidemisusecomplaintform.pdf or by calling IDOA’s Bureau of Environmental Programs at 1-800-641-3934 (voice and TDD) or 217-785-2427. Additional information on pesticide uses and misuses can be found on the agency’s website at: https://www.agr.state.il.us/pesticides-uses-misuses.
Complaint forms must be received by 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.
The complaint process
Once a complaint is filed with the department, a field inspector 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 inspector 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 an 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.
Certainly, it is easiest and best to prevent herbicide drift from occurring. Drift can be extremely expensive and often results in poor neighbor relations.
Additional information for use when handling potential drift injury
A useful resource that includes information and helpful tips on preventing and dealing with the off-target movement of herbicide applications is an online module titled,
“Herbicide Tolerant Crop Stewardship”. Especially useful would be chapter 5, “Avoiding/Handling Injury.” While it was created with producers in mind, it would also be beneficial to homeowners, gardeners, and anyone who grows plants and it’s free. It can be found at: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/psep/articulate/htcs/.
Aaron Hager and Michelle Wiesbrook