Arkansas Plant Board backs stiff dicamba fines

The state Plant Board on Wednesday approved the framework for allowing fines of up to $25,000 for the most serious cases of illegal spraying of dicamba and other herbicides.

State lawmakers approved the stiffer fines in March during their regular legislative session, but state law that governs boards and commissions requires the Plant Board, a part of the state Department of Agriculture, and its civil-penalties committee to revise a penalty matrix.

The Plant Board, with little discussion, unanimously approved the committee's work. The new penalty matrix now goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for review. If approved by the governor, the matrix will be the subject of a public hearing this summer.

The maximum fine now is $1,000, but state regulators said that amount didn't deter some Arkansas farmers who, when faced last summer with an infestation of pigweed in their dicamba-tolerant beans and cotton, illegally sprayed the herbicide. In many cases, the herbicide drifted to other crops -- including fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants and trees -- that were not dicamba-tolerant.

Act 778 won't take effect until Aug. 1 because its sponsor didn't include an emergency clause, which would have made the law effective upon the governor's signature. The stiffer fines also can't be applied retroactively. Complaints last year from farmers about dicamba damage began emerging in May.

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The stiffer fines, according to the law, are for illegal spraying of "dicamba or auxin-containing herbicide or any new herbicide technology released" after Aug. 1.

Similar crop damage was reported in Missouri, especially in its "boot heel" region near Jonesboro and Blytheville. Missouri lawmakers also approved fines of up to $25,000 for each violation, but that law took effect immediately.

While the $25,000 fine is set for "egregious" cases, the Plant Board has other options, including a warning letter and fines of $200 to $1,000.

The board said it will decide on a case-by-case basis what constitutes an "egregious" violation that results in "significant" damage to crops.

The Plant Board also has the authority to refer such cases for criminal prosecution or to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In other business, Chairman Otis Howe told board members that the governor has signed off on allowing the Plant Board to fill two positions vacant for months under a hiring freeze that Hutchinson implemented shortly after taking office in January 2015. The positions are for a metrologist and a chemist. Hutchinson hasn't acted on the board's request to fill a long-vacant spot for an assistant director.

Board members also were introduced to Wade Hodge, the first in-house lawyer for the Agriculture Department since its creation in 2005. Hodge started this month after being the lawyer for the state Department of Community Correction for nearly six years. He also was a lawyer in the attorney general's office from 1986-99 and was a part-time deputy prosecutor in Faulkner County. His salary at the Agriculture Department is $88,300.

Business on 05/18/2017

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