Vt. pesticide reports unavailable due to software oversight

Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has not put out legally required reports on pesticide use since 2013, blaming the lapse on a database change gone wrong.

The reports that are publicly available on the amount of pesticides applied to golf courses, lawns, farms, utility corridors and other commercial uses come with the caveat that the data “are currently undergoing review and have not been verified.”

According to Vermont law, the Secretary of the Agency of Agriculture must “make information reported to the Agency relative to the use of pesticides available to the public via the Internet or in any other way deemed appropriate.”

The state tracks pesticide usage through annual reports from certain kinds of certified applicators and information on sales from pesticide dealers.

Cary Giguere, director of public health and agricultural resource management for the agency, said a database problem is the reason for the five-year lag.

When the state consolidated IT departments under the Shumlin administration, the ag agency switched from having an employee who managed the database in-house to an “off-the-shelf” database for the pesticide data. After that, problems with the database rendered the reports it produced inaccurate, he said.

“Broadly speaking the data we have is good, but there are still cross-checks and corrections that need to be done,” said Giguere.

Giguere also said that the agency transferred resources in the past five years away from pesticides to other priorities, like water quality.

“We do feel that we now have the correct resources allocated to this and look forward to posting these data as soon as they are validated,” he said.

The data challenges have not escaped the notice of the state’s Pesticide Advisory Council, which is made up of state agency representatives and public appointees. In 2015, and in a follow-up memo in 2018, VPAC recommended that the agency create a publicly accessible, “user friendly interface” for the state’s pesticide use data.

“Efforts to update and maintain the existing commercial use pesticide record keeping system/database would benefit all interested parties,” wrote VPAC.

Giguere said Anson Tebbets, the agriculture secretary, had responded by providing additional resources needed to clean up the data and make the reports publicly available.

Environmental advocacy group Regeneration Vermont has pushed the agency to publish the reports. Michael Colby, executive director of the nonprofit, said publishing the pesticide usage data is in the interest not only of the public but also regulators and VPAC, which is charged with recommending targets toward an overall statewide reduction in pesticide use.

“If the goal is to try to reduce pesticides … the best place to start is to know how much you’re using,” said Colby.

He said his organization had obtained copies of commercial pesticide use reports from 2014-2016. “But we had to file a (Freedom of Information Act request), we had to threaten legal action, we had to really push push push,” Colby said.

The group analyzed that data and determined that the use of glyphosate — commonly used in weed killers including Roundup — on cornfields had doubled during that time. The World Health Organization had deemed glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen” and it has been banned in a dozen locations around the world.

Gigure said that the agency had provided reports from that three-year stretch with the caveat that the data were not verified, which is why the agency had not posted the reports online.

By law, VPAC is supposed to “recommend targets with respect to the State goal of achieving an overall reduction in the use of pesticides consistent with sound pest or vegetative management practices.” Until last session, VPAC was also supposed to provide an annual report describing the state’s progress in meeting those targets.

The ag agency successfully pushed to remove the requirement that VPAC file that report. Giguere said the report, which had not been filed since 2003, had mainly summarized VPAC’s activities — information now available online.

When asked to be directed to where information about the pesticide reduction targets or the state’s progress in achieving those targets, Giguere said that the council incorporates the goal of pesticide reduction into its review of pesticide permits, especially for golf courses, and “any work that the council does.”

“It’s not a specific item that gets reported on but one that guides the council’s work,” he said.

VPAC also hears from individual applicants applying for permits about their past and requested pesticide usage, said Giguere.

‘IT SITUATION FOR AG’

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee, said she had not previously been aware that the agency had not been making the pesticide reports public.

However, Partridge was aware that the “IT situation for Ag” has been challenging since the agency switched from using in-house employees to manage its system. For example, the agency is still working to switch from a paper-based to online agricultural licensing system, she said.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, also said he had not been aware of the pesticide reporting issue. He added that it’s “rather inexcusable” that the agency had not followed the law for making pesticide reports publicly available for this long.

“I think we let the Ag Department get away without doing their job too often,” said Pollina. “It’s just something that I think we have to do a better job at.”

He added that lawmakers have had “a lot of issues” over the years trying to access data from state government in general.

“Enough is enough when it comes to using this inadequate database as an excuse not to follow through with the laws that we pass,” said Pollina.

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