A group of public water systems in Missouri and Kansas are part of a federal lawsuit filed this week by 16 water systems against the leading maker of a popular farm herbicide.
The lawsuit seeks at least $5 million from Syngenta Crop Protection, Greensboro, N.C., and its parent, Syngenta, AG, Basel, Switzerland, in damages and to pay for the costs to treat water laced with atrazine. Cameron, Mo., northeast of Kansas City; and Concordia, Mo., east of Kansas City; Miami County Rural Water District No. 2, Spring Hill, Kan., just southwest of Kansas City; and the city of Carbondale, Kan., about 60 miles southwest of Kansas City, are among the group of cities and water districts in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Illiniois, Indiana and Ohio involved.
The group’s attorney is seeking to make the lawsuit a class-action suit on behalf of other cities and water systems.
Syngenta is a major manufacturer of the herbicide atrazine, short for 2-chloro-4-ethylamino-6-isopropyl amino-s-triazine.
American farmers apply about 75 million tons of it each year to their crop fields, including soybeans, corn, milo and cane sugar. About 75 percent of the field corn planted in the U.S. is treated with it.
It’s prized for its effectiveness in killing broadleaf and grassy weeds without “binding” to the soil -- not staying in the soil to kill newly-planted corn plants in future years.
Atrazine is both effective -- and reasonably cheap, said Sue Schulte, communications director of the Kansas Corn Commission, the Kansas Corn Growers Association and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers, groups which have vigorously defended the herbicide.
“We need to be able to produce enough food to feed the people in the U.S. and throughout the world,” she said.
Most fertilizers and herbicides can be expensive and eat heavily into farmers‘ income.
“Atrazine is one chemical that’s reasonably priced,” Schulte said. “Which is one thing that makes it so important to corn growers. It has a lot of residuals for good value.”
However, in their court filing, the water systems say because of its properties, atrazine readily runs off the fields during heavy rains and easily contaminates the streams and lakes that form their water supplies.
“Today, atrazine is the most commonly detected herbicide in surface water,” their filing says. “For example, between 1992 and 2001, atrazine and its degradant chemicals were detected in more than 75 percent of stream samples in agricultural areas across the United States.”
They say it’s reapplied every year and re-contaminates their water supplies again each year.
“… the contamination of the Plaintiffs’ is certain to continue as long as atrazine is used in its present form.”
Because of its ability to contaminate water supplies, the European Union has banned atrazine, their filing said.
Atrazine, and those chemicals that are byproducts of the breakdown of atrazine, pose a health risk and Syngenta has denied and has suppressed or tried to skew that evidence that shows there is a risk, the filing said.
In a written statement, Kurtis Reeg, attorney for Syngenta, calls the suit frivolous and that it’s based on junk science.
The St. Louis firm that represents the water systems has shopped the case in several different states, he said.
“In these tough economic times, one may wonder why anyone – other than class action lawyers – would seek to destroy what EPA estimates is a $2 billion annual economic benefit to the nation, and all of the jobs that go with it,” Reeg said. “This lawsuit has no merit because we know from EPA-mandated testing that no water systems since 2005 have exceeded the annual average guidance for atrazine.
“We intend to defend ourselves vigorously.”
No water system in the U.S. has had atrazine levels higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard “which itself carries a 1000-fold safety factor” since 2005, he said.
The EPA has been reviewing the use of atrazine over the last 15 years, Schulte said.
“Whatever decision is arrived at by the EPA should be based on sound science and not politics,” she said.
Much of the resistance to atrazine is politically motivated rather than on the basis of scientific studies, Schulte said.
“There are a lot of people who have agendas,” she said. “They’re wrong.”
Recent scientific studies show atrazine has a significant impact on hormones in humans and animals, said Josh Mogerman, in the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The most recent study shows that atrazine has a significant effect in lowering the number of human sperm, he said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council isn’t a party to the suit but the group’s own research indicates there are good reasons for concern, he said.
“It’s not like we’re not talking about the most studied chemical on the planet,” Mogerman said. “There are lots and lots of studies but Syngenta won’t talk about the ones they don’t pay for.”
Another concern is that atrazine is so pervasive in surface and ground water, even in those areas that are urban or where atrazine isn’t used, he said.
“It’s a little bit scary,” he said.
Every watershed that the EPA has studied has shown evidence of atrazine, he said.
Although Syngenta says that banning atrazine would hamstring agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the impact of a ban would be relatively limited, he said.
When the European Union banned atrazine, Italian and German farmers, the largest users of atrazine, faced little impact and they remain among the most productive farmers in the EU, he said.