Plus: COVID worker protections vary, Dave Dickey looks at 2020 and Midwest Center news
This will be our last regular newsletter of the year so we've squeezed a lot in, starting with an important story on pesticide drift. We thank you sincerely for your support and for following us in 2020. Please consider a donation to support us if you are able. Stay safe and read on. Here's to 2021!
The Midwest Center placed sensors in five locations around central Illinois. Among other findings, the results showed at least one banned pesticide floating around.
By Claire Hettinger and Johnathan Hettinger, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Claire Hettinger was the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Anna Casey, the Midwest Center's 2018 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow, contributed to this report.
The past few summers, Laura Wetherell’s three children often played in the family’s backyard next to Barkstall Elementary School in Champaign, Illinois. Her home and the school are both within 100 feet of agricultural fields. Unbeknownst to her, pesticides with potentially harmful health effects have been floating through the air.
For one year, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting periodically sampled for pesticide drift in five locations surrounded by agricultural fields in Central Illinois, where large numbers of corn and soybeans are planted.
Five air sensors put up by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting from June 2018 to July 2019 found the presence of pesticides near schools, parks and homes where vulnerable populations live. These include: Wetherell’s home, East Prairie Middle School in Tuscola, the Bismarck School District central office, a public park in rural Sadorus and a private home outside of Sidney. Filters from the sensors were later sent to be tested at an independent lab accredited by the USDA for pesticides. The Midwest Center conducted follow-up interviews over the past year.
More than a dozen states have created enforceable safety protections for essential workers after federal authorities failed to guarantee their safety during the pandemic.
Yet at least twelve states have already passed laws or enacted executive orders designed to limit the liability of employers while other states have proposed similar rules, a review by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.
The industry points out that injury rates have decreased over the years. But the National Employment Law Center parsed the injury data and found poultry plants, especially major companies Tyson and JBS, are near the top of the list when it comes to severe injuries.
In a normal year we would be debating several worthy agricultural stories as the most important. We certainly would be taking a hard look at the continuing dicamba herbicide saga. 2020 saw the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit de-register dicamba formulations in the middle of the growing season from Bayer AG, Corteva, and BASF because of shoddy regulatory control at the Environmental Protection Agency:
We were proud to have recently been chosen by Report for America as one of 64 new local news organizations to be part of their national service program, that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities (in our case, Illinois agribusiness and status of workers). An initiative of the nonprofit media organization, The GroundTruth Project, it is structured to harness the skills and idealism of an emerging group of journalists plus the creative spirit of local news organization
We were also pleased to be called out in Bloomberg Business Week's Jealousy List of 2020, a list of stories they were jealous they didn't write. It's worth a look to see some great writing! From the Jealousy List: "The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has done outstanding work on meatpackers and Covid-19 all year. They organized a multi-organization public records request that yielded amazing detail about how meatpacking companies dictated Trump’s executive order keeping plants open. This is a newsy example of the penetrating investigative work they did all year on the topic."