Report: EPA officials improperly influenced dicamba decision

O’FALLON, Mo. — Environmental Protection Agency officials improperly influenced a decision to re-approve use of dicamba, a herbicide blamed for crop damage in hundreds of lawsuits, during the Trump administration, according to an internal agency report.

“We found that the EPA’s 2018 decision to extend registrations for three dicamba pesticide products varied from typical operating procedures,” a summary of the report released Monday by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General stated. “Namely, the EPA did not conduct the required internal peer reviews of scientific documents created to support the dicamba decision.”

Dicamba is found in several products and used on tens of millions of acres of soybeans and cotton nationwide. It has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, mostly by farmers whose crops are not dicamba-resistant, but whose land sits next to farms using the weedkiller. The lawsuits claim that wind blows dicamba onto their land, damaging and often killing their crops.

Farmers have been using dicamba for more than 50 years, but after Monsanto — which was bought by Bayer in 2018 — released dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans, the herbicide’s use became more widespread.

In February 2020, Bayer and BASF were ordered to pay $265 million to a Missouri peach farmer who said the herbicide drifted from nearby cotton fields and damaged thousands of his trees.

Bayer said in June that it would pay up to $400 million to settle claims of dicamba drift. But Paul Lesko, a St. Louis attorney who is handling several dicamba cases, said the new EPA report could open the way for new litigation.

“Anybody that doesn’t settle or for cases going forward, I think it’s a big deal,” Lesko said. “I think it shows that punitive damages are back in play.”

Companies that make dicamba were licensed in 2016 and the EPA renewed the license for two years in 2018.

The EPA report said three agency officials “were more involved in the dicamba decision (in 2018) than in other pesticide registration decisions. This led to senior-level changes to or omissions from scientific documents. For instance, these documents excluded some conclusions initially assessed by staff scientists to address stakeholder risks. We also found that staff felt constrained or muted in sharing their concerns on the dicamba registrations.”

The report said those actions led to a federal appeals court’s decision last year vacating the 2018 registrations. In that ruling, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher wrote that the EPA overstated the protections and understated or ignored the environmental and economic risks of dicamba.

A statement from Bayer said the company stands behind its dicamba-containing XtendiMax herbicide, “which has been reviewed and approved for use under different administrations.” The company said the herbicide helps growers “safely and successfully protect their crops from tough-to-control weeds.”

Email messages left Wednesday with BASF weren’t immediately returned.