Banning atrazine is not on state lawmakers' current agenda.
But the fact that corn growers' favorite herbicide is a frequent target of "activists" prompted an atrazine industry spokesman to warn that replacing actual science with political science would be disastrous for state agriculture.
Syngenta, an agribusiness giant facing an atrazine-related Madison County class action lawsuit, recently commissioned an economic impact study of atrazine on the state's economy. The economist who conducted the research was himself surprised at the "huge" figures.
Don Coursey, a University of Chicago professor, concluded that Illinois corn farmers and the state's economy could suffer more than $500 million in annual losses without atrazine in a study issued Tuesday, "Illinois Without Atrazine: Who Pays?"
Coursey, who discussed the findings with a group of Illinois Farm Bureau members in Springfield, said, "I expected to see positive numbers, but never expected they would be so huge on an annual basis."
Coursey's report analyzes the costs corn growers would face if atrazine was unavailable and the corresponding impact on the state's economy.
"Without atrazine, Illinois growers would absorb a loss in the first year between $161 million and $577 million," Coursey said. "It is the equivalent of a huge tax hike on Illinois corn farmers."
He said that from a public policy standpoint, lawmakers ought to think "very carefully" before imposing a $3-4 million "tax" on farmers which would result from a ban on atrazine.
Atrazine is the most popular corn herbicide in the U.S., where it's been used on crops for nearly 50 years. Illinois is the nation's second largest corn-producing state, with receipts accounting for 18.5 percent of the total value of U.S. corn receipts in 2005, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures.
At more than $3.5 billion, corn alone provided nearly 40 percent of Illinois' total farm receipts in 2005, also according to the USDA.
During Coursey's presentation, attention shifted to the six class action lawsuits currently pending in Madison County against atrazine makers, including Sygenta, Drexel, Dow, United Agri Products, Supcan Agro and Makhteshinm Agan.
The suits have been idle since last year when a Syngenta attorney argued a motion to dismiss a suit the company faces by plaintiff Holiday Shores Sanitary District. St. Louis attorney Stephen Tillery is the lead on all six suits. Baron & Budd of Dallas, Texas is co-counsel.
Circuit Judge Daniel Stack, who presides over the most complicated civil matters in Madison County, is assigned to the cases.
Holiday Shores Sanitary District, one of nearly 1,800 water districts in the state, wants to be fitted with a new charcoal system to filter out atrazine, among other demands. Several years ago Holiday Shores was fined by the EPA for exceeding the allowable amount of atrazine in its water supply.
The call for banning atrazine has surfaced elsewhere.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy suggests that atrazine in groundwater is linked to frog deformities around the state.
But recently the group's request for further testing of atrazine and other herbicides was rejected by state regulators who are content to accept federal safety reports.
An editorial appearing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Feb. 8 urging lawmakers to consider further testing, opined, "Atrazine has been shown to disrupt hormone production and neurological functions in mammals. It is suspected of causing birth defects in humans and of inducing abortions in pregnant women. It's hard on fish, too."
Dave Flakne, a state government relations manager for Syngenta, told Illinois Farm Bureau members that atrazine -- a triazine compound -- is one of the most tested and trusted herbicides on the market.
In June 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency again concluded that the cumulative risks associated with triazine herbicides pose "no harm that would result to the general U.S. population, infants, children or other...consumers."
After the study, atrazine was re-registered for continued use after a 12-year review of all science pertaining to the herbicide. It is one of the first herbicides to be re-registered under the requirements of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act.
"Activists...have tried at every venue to undermine" atrazine, Flakne said.
"They are constantly throwing up challenges, but we have been responsible," he said.
He said that "activists have been unrelenting" in attempting to undermine the EPA's authority and the science which proves atrazine is not a health hazard.
"If they're able to do it with atrazine, what's the next product they could do it to?" Flakne said.
The director of a state-based economic research organization noted the importance of Coursey's study as it relates to Illinois' reputed plaintiff friendly legal climate.
"It shows what a threat the legal climate has on the economic vitality of Illinois," said Greg Blankenship, director of the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization in Springfield.
Coursey, an economist and Ameritech Professor of Public Policy Studies at the Harris School of Public Policy, concluded that if atrazine were banned in Illinois the estimated yield losses due to inferior crop protection at between $111 million and $211 million; recurring farming costs between $48 million and $344 million and out-of-pocket expenses in sales taxes between $3 million and $22 million.
"Including state and local sales taxes, farmers can expect to pay between $50 million and $366 million more to produce between $111 million and $211 million less in corn," Coursey said.
"The majority of the lost income and increased expenses will be carried by Illinois corn growers, their families and the communities in which they live and do business," he said.
The study also examined negative environmental consequences of an atrazine ban.
Coursey said he found that there are no environmental benefits in eliminating atrazine, but the "costs" include more sedimentary runoff, more chemical runoff, higher water treatment costs, more use of fossil fuels, more carbon dioxide release, reduced soil quality and less habitat.
He did not estimate the economic costs of the environmental effects, but suggested they are "considerable."
Coursey also said eliminating atrazine would have a negative impact on the state and nation's efforts to replace gasoline with alternative and renewable sources of energy.
"The availability of relatively inexpensive corn in Illinois is essential in reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil, further developing renewable and environmentally friendly fuel alternatives," he said. "Without atrazine, each of these efforts would be thwarted, making that solution harder and more expensive to attain."
Coursey is an experimental economist whose research is concerned largely with eliciting reliable measures of preferences and values for public goods, such as environmental quality. He joined the faculty of the Harris School in 1993, and served as dean of the school from 1996 to 1998.