The Environmental Protection Agency has been collecting comments regarding program changes that will influence how it considers spray drift from ground and aerial application in its risk assessments. Anticipation is that crop protection labels will be written with more restrictions about application, and end-users, both farmers and custom applicators, will have big headaches trying to meet new restrictions to limit drift.

The Spray Drift Risk Assessment Guidance (SDRAG) document and Drift Reduction Technology (DRT) program were open for comment with the SDRAG closed at the end of May and the DRT program scheduled to end as this article went to the printer. Documents put together by the EPA must be evaluated by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The claim is that the DRT program is voluntary, but cooperation in the program will be highly advantageous because not cooperating could result in major limitations on product use.

 Andrew Goetz, Ph.D., manager North America regulatory strategy and product stewardship, BASF, said, “Our labels will get much more restrictive and there will be specific requirements related to spray drift that will need to be followed. The work now is being done on release height, droplet size, etc. Restrictions will make application harder to follow by applicators.”

The EPA has proposed using data compiled by the Spray Drift Task Force (SDTF), which was an agricultural industry task force formed in 1990, and the data compilation is referred to as the AgDrift document.

Michael Leggett, Ph.D., senior director of environmental policy, CropLife America (CLA), noted that the SDTF data used for AgDrift to predict drift from ground application, aerial application and air blast orchard application was good data interpreted very conservatively. “It predicts a lot more drift than what actually occurs today,” he said. “AgDrift is an empirical model that draws the curves and averages of all the data, and that is used for a conservative prediction of drift. The SDTF data is still good, but it is dated.”

CLA, Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), BASF and other crop protection manufacturers suggest there just isn’t enough data particularly for ground and air blast application and no data from newer technology in AgDrift, because the document is 20 years old. Leggett said the SDTF had many more studies for aerial application than ground application when AgDrift was compiled.

Although the ag industry has filed its concerns and suggestions, there is no indication that the EPA is inclined to alter its original path set out in the documents released for comment. The ag industry is expecting the norm to be more restrictions around the use of pesticides.

“For a lot of different products, even though there haven’t been buffer zones in the past, we should expect some new buffers in the future as old products go through re-registration review, and protective buffers are going to be a very common requirement with new product registrations,” Leggett predicted.

Registrants should be doing their own studies to limit the buffer zones because if they don’t provide data from a study then the size of the buffer could be quite ominous. “That is why companies will develop data about nozzles and other drift reducing technology. Otherwise, they are going to be stuck with default assumptions using EPA and AgDrift models,” Leggett said.

Scott Jackson, Ph.D., regulatory technical stewardship and sustainability manager, BASF, is expecting “most products in the future will have buffers.”

“In the industry, we have been advocating for risk-based buffers. We don’t believe in statutory buffers—that meaning EPA shouldn’t just put 100 feet on a label without reason. These types of decisions should be active ingredient by active ingredient depending on the properties of the product,” Jackson said.

CLA and ARA, representing nearly all of conventional agriculture, have expressed strong opinions about the size of buffers, especially those near residential areas.

Richard Gupton, senior vice-president of public policy and counsel, ARA, said, “We are concerned about the risk assessment and how it could result in land being taken out of production if there are large buffer areas.”

The situation appears that as residential developments pop up in the middle of what has been farm ground, all of a sudden this will require the farmer and applicator to establish a large buffer zone.

“Residential developers need to be required to factor in buffers as they are constructing homes. They need to create buffers on the residential side rather than all of the buffer coming from the farm side,” Gupton said.

The concern also is that residential buffers could be huge because of pressure being put on the EPA to “protect children.” This is where an almost zero tolerance seems to be a mandate. EPA is establishing a safe level of contact for a toddler rolling in the grass for two hours. Then the regulators are assuming a lot more drift is occurring than the scientific data indicates is likely. Farming buffers will be based on these assumptions; EPA isn’t taking into account residues that probably come from residential lawn care.

A court case was filed in California in early June that contends the EPA has not moved fast enough to protect children from potential drift. Jackson and Goetz at BASF point to another major concern that hasn’t been getting extremely high attention—buffers related to endangered species habitat. “Risk allowable to an endangered species is very conservative,” Goetz said.

Jackson explained that protecting a species with buffers is a big undefined situation at the moment. Limitations to crop protection products use could result in entire counties being declared as too sensitive for various product use.

“If the EPA says a whole county is potential habitat for a species, and even if a farmer’s field has not been shown to be anywhere near where that species has been found, the farmer could be required to establish much larger sensitive area buffers around his field, or not be allowed to apply products. To us, this is a real critical issue to keep an eye on,” Jackson said.

Yet another concern relates to the potential for labeling according to wind direction. With or without a protective buffer, labeling could be required so that application is done based on wind direction. Therefore, an applicator might have to spray the equivalent of a buffer zone away from a neighboring property, if the wind is blowing toward that property, and then come back at a later date to make an application to those crops left untreated when the wind is blowing away from the neighboring property instead of toward it.

“What this would do is require these fields to be treated twice—first when the wind direction is going one way and then go back and treat the untreated acreage when the wind direction changes around,” noted Jackson. “Not making it back for the second application means in the case of weeds, the grower is going to have a seed source build up; for insects, it is going to provide a refuge for them; and the same is true for pathogens. It is really making the job harder on the end users.”

ARA pointed out to the EPA that professional applicators go through rigorous training and certification; therefore, its membership thinks “the EPA should provide greater flexibility for commercial applicators utilizing DRT star-rated systems (rating of drift reduction technology) than private applicators that have less education and training. … Commercial applicators must have greater flexibility to assess the local conditions and use sound judgment in selection of application equipment and practices.”

When and how EPA will be applying new stringent criteria for product use isn’t clear, but it is inevitable. Some changes are in the works already relating to new product labeling, according to CLA’s Leggett. Applicators will have to be conscious that product labels are changing, and even old products will have new restrictions after re-registration.

Gupton said, “We have the same concerns as the registrants about labeling of products, but the biggest impact is going to be on the applicator and farmer.”