LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A Nebraska lawmaker wants to change how much crop-dusting companies can be fined when pesticides drift onto another property, but the Department of Agriculture says few companies are penalized in the first place.
The Legislature's Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss how to fine pilots and companies that violate the state's pesticide laws. The committee also considered a proposal to change the state agency overseeing aerial pesticide sprayers, which was met with opposition.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist introduced legislation that would allow only the company to be fined for aerial pesticide spraying violations. Current law allows the Department of Agriculture to fine both the pilot and pesticide spraying company. Krist says companies are being unjustly fined significantly more based on income.
Tim Creger, the Department of Agriculture pesticide program manager, said the department levies few fines each year and that he is not sure why it has drawn Krist's concern.
The Department of Agriculture investigated 11 complaints against pilots wrongly spraying pesticides in 2012. The agency issued a fine $1,250 in one 2012 case where an aerial application drifted and hit a person, Creger said. The maximum state penalty for one violation is $5,000.
"The actual numbers would say the industry is underpenalized," said Creger, who did not testify or take a stance on the bill. "When I show people the estimated number of inspections and then the penalties we hand out, they say, that's it? It's almost embarrassing."
Those fines do not benefit the agency, but go into a Nebraska educational fund, he said. The agency goal is to get businesses and pilots to comply with the law rather than punish them, he said. The department weighs a number of factors when issuing a penalty including the toxicity of the chemical, the degree of intent to harm and how many past violations the company or pilot has had. Creger said he has received several complaints from Nebraskans saying they wish the Department of Agriculture would fine negligent pesticide companies more.
Tim Hauder, owner of Har-Mor Ag Air, testified in support of the bill. He claimed his company and his pilot were fined too much for a pesticide overspray violation. Hauder said his company was fined about ten times more than his pilot.
"As a business owner, we find this as a hindrance to grow our business and hire additional pilots," he said.
Since the state's pesticide law went into effect in 1993, Creger can only recall a few instances — including Hauder's fine — when the Department of Agriculture issued penalties for the company and pilot. Creger said Hauder and his independently contracted pilot had multiple previous violations, which influenced the agency's decision to fine both of them at a higher amount.
Brian Wilcox, president of the Nebraska Aviation Trade Association, was the only person to testify against the bill. He said companies and pilots should both fined for violations in order to boost safety.
Krist's bill also request aerial spraying violations be routed through the Department of Aeronautics rather than the Department of Agriculture. He said the Department of Agriculture takes too long to investigate aerial pesticide cases. Complaints should be settled within 90 days, Krist said.
Krist said the Department of Agriculture lacks expertise in federal aviation standards. Creger said he was surprised to see Krist's bill because he already refers cases of negligent aircraft operation to the FAA. The Department of Aeronautics also has no jurisdiction over the negligent flying cases, he added.
Krist explained that the Department of Aeronautics would not investigate the cases, but rather refer the complaints to the local Federal Aviation Administration office, which would investigate the cases. Getting the FAA involved would allow aerial pesticide violations to affect the pilot's license, Krist said. FAA violations follow a pilot across the United States, while Department of Agriculture violations do not, Krist said.
Department of Aeronautics Director Ronnie Mitchell, who was not at the hearing, said he doesn't think the bill would require his agency to hire additional staff or request more funding. Mitchell said he understands that the cases would then be referred back to the Department of Agriculture after the local FAA reviewed the cases.
"I'm not really sure how it speeds up the process," Mitchell said.
The bill is LB15.