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Farmer's dicamba settlement offer $476,900

by Stephen Steed | January 17, 2021 at 2:14 a.m.

A farmer in Cross County has received a consent offer to pay $476,900 to close out charges that he violated Arkansas pesticide law more than 200 times in 2018 and 2019.

Fourteen case files against Wayne Wilkison of Wynne are pending at the state Department of Agriculture's Plant Industries Division and Plant Board.

Wilkison is among seven farmers who in recent months have received settlement offers from the Agriculture Department to close out dicamba-related investigations from 2018 and 2019, according to records at the department.

The most recent offers, with some sent to the farmers in mid-December, total more than $850,000. That brings to $2.3 million the total of settlement offers in cases that have at least one alleged egregious violation of dicamba regulations.

Violations deemed egregious are punishable by fines of up to $25,000; Plant Board staff members have the board's approval to halve those amounts in their offers to settle cases, if circumstances warrant. The Plant Board still must approve all settlement offers, including any proposed reductions.

In just one case file for Wilkison, there are 199 alleged violations, with the consent offer totaling $189,900. The allegations consist of:

• One egregious-eligible violation -- dicamba drift that caused significant damage to a neighbor's crops -- with a settlement offer of $12,500, or half the possible maximum fine.

• One count of spraying during the state's ban on dicamba, with a settlement offer of $1,000.

• 113 charges of failing to keep dicamba spray records, as required by state and federal law, with a total settlement offer of $99,900.

• 84 applications of dicamba at higher volumes than allowed under state and federal regulations, with a settlement offer of $72,900.

Wilkison's $476,900 settlement offer is by far the most ever sought by the 104-year-old Plant Board.

Wilkison filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court last spring, according to court records. A Jonesboro attorney who initially wrote the Plant Board to contest the 2018 cases said Thursday that, after the bankruptcy filing, he no longer represents Wilkison.

The six other farmers receiving settlement offers in late 2020 are: William Michael Butler of Osceola (one case, $37,500); Robert "Ron" Holthouse Jr. of Osceola (two cases, $37,500); Larry Malone Jr. of Osceola (one case, $25,000); Thomas Joseph Munn of Wynne (five cases, $137,500); Benjamin Colby Sexton of Lepanto (two cases, $50,000), and James "Tim" Sullivan of Burdette (two cases, $87,500).

Those farmers have hired Grant Ballard, a Little Rock attorney, to challenge the Plant Board.

Farmers' complaints of crop damage initiated 14 of the 27 cases; Agriculture Department field inspectors opened 13 cases because they saw evidence of dicamba's illegal use during what they call "routine monitoring" of fields in their assigned districts.

The names of farmers and their case files were released by the Agriculture Department after a request by the Democrat-Gazette under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. In articles last spring and summer the newspaper has reported the names of other farmers involved in egregious-eligible cases.

Decisions in about 70 cases are pending, a process slowed in part because the coronavirus pandemic has thwarted the 18-member Plant Board's preference to meet in person, a board member said. Formal hearings, when requested by farmers or their attorneys, also require the presence of a court reporter and a hearing officer from the attorney general's office, the member noted.

No dates for formal hearings have been set, a department spokesman said Thursday.

Many farmers also haven't responded to registered mail sent by Plant Board staff members or to staff members' telephone calls, Plant Board officials have been told in recent meetings.

Arkansas regulators have received more than 1,500 complaints of dicamba damage since 2016; other soybean- and cotton-producing states have reported similar numbers. The federal Environmental Protection Agency last fall approved the in-crop use of dicamba for another five years.

Dicamba is considered by some farmers to be effective against weeds that have grown resistant to the other herbicides and is being used on soybean and cotton varieties developed by the former Monsanto Co. to be dicamba tolerant. Other soybean and cotton varieties and other crops and vegetation, including backyard gardens and ornamentals, are susceptible to dicamba.

The egregious violation most often cited in settlement offers last year is for spraying dicamba after the state's cutoff dates in 2018 and 2019. The Plant Board has set a May 26 cutoff date for spraying the herbicide this season.

Other violations eligible for the maximum $25,000 fines are spraying dicamba that results in drift onto another's property or crops, failure to keep spray records, and failure to provide records upon request by an investigator.


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