Whistleblower Wotzka, legislators and researcher put Atrazine back in spotlight

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Paul Wotzka was a low-profile hydrologist, employed by the state of Minnesota, until he was fired in March after speaking out against atrazine, a widely-used herbicide. Since then he has been in the spotlight. “For 16 years, I worked in this area with groups of fisherman and farmers. We never got much publicity,” he says, “So, now, it’s different to get calls for interviews.”

Wotzka is concerned that atrazine, a herbicide used on many cornfields, has been found in storm water runoff and streams, including Southeast Minnesota’s Whitewater River, and could affect not only the surrounding wildlife but also the drinking water of residents. He was employed for years by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and then went to work for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in 2005. Wotzka was fired from his position at the MPCA this spring after his attempt to testify before a legislative committee hearing about the potentially harmful effects of atrazine.

“I’m up front about telling people about the issues,” says Wotzka, “no way should atrazine be used…We need to tell the Department of Agriculture to look at their regulatory work and say, ‘it’s not enough.’”

Wotzka attests that atrazine currently can be found in storm runoff, streams and lakes across Minnesota. The slide presentation that he prepared to show at the legislative committee hearing evaluated pesticide use, water quality results and management practices in Southeastern Minnesota. Most of his research is on water in that region, but Wotzka says that atrazine also has been found in the Chaska creek and in Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. “There are seven million acres of corn grown in Minnesota. You don’t have to go too far to find atrazine,” says Wotzka, “Even if you live in an urban area, it’s there.”

Paul Wotzka will join Tyrone Hayes, as well as MN State Senator John Marty and MN State Representative Ken Tschumper on Wednesday, October 10th at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE Minneapolis. Doors open at 6:15, Paul Metsa performs from 6:30 to 7:00 and the presentation runs from 7:00 to 9:00. Following the presentation, there will be a question and answer section, and a silent auction featuring numerous stores and restaurants from the Twin Cities.

Seats can be reserved by emailing foodforum@eastsidefood.coop, and will be held until 6:45 before being sold and filled. Donations of $20 are requested to help pay for Wotzka’s lawsuit, but no one will be turned away from the door.

Those unable to attend are invited to support Paul Wotzka by mailing donations payable to “Paul Wotzka’s Defense Fund” to:

Eastside Food Co-op
Attn. Kristina Gronquist
2551 Central Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Tyrone Hayes, an Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, is strongly opposed to the use of atrazine. Hayes, who primarily works on frogs and other amphibians, measures how changes in the environment affect hormones, which ultimately affect development. His research has shown that atrazine produces a decrease in androgens and an increase in estrogen, even at concentrations as low as 1/10 of a microgram per liter, thus “chemically castrating” the frogs.

“The same imbalance will happen in humans,” says Hayes. “When atrazine is mixed with other chemicals, it attacks the immune system and leads to diseases.” Atrazine turns on the gene that leads to prostate and breast cancer, says Hayes.

Atrazine was banned in the European Union in 2004. According to Hayes, “The European Union has a slightly different approach to regulating chemicals than the United States. It operates under the precautionary principle, which says that if there is the potential for a chemical to cause environmental and public health harm, then that chemical is regulated. And in the case of Atrazine, banned, because it’s found in the water.”

Wisconsin also regulates the rate at which atrazine can be applied and bans its use in some areas of the state.

Syngenta, a Swiss-owned manufacturer with locations in the U.S., widely distributes atrazine and other herbicides and pesticides. Studies done at Syngenta’s Louisiana facility found that factory workers exposed to atrazine had prostate cancer at 8.4 times the rate of unexposed workers. “They’re poisoning their own employees and then covering it up,” says Hayes.

“All the reports put out by the industry say that atrazine has no effect on amphibians, but every study put out by people not in the industry say that it absolutely does,” says Hayes. Atrazine, say both Wotzka and Hayes, is only one of many harmful pesticides that need to be researched further. “Atrazine is the poster child for a deceptive and ineffective system,” says Hayes, “but it’s not the only one that’s a problem. It’s the one that makes them the most money.” The EPA is conducting a review of atrazine, which it is scheduled to release by next July.

While the MPCA is responsible for setting atrazine level limits for rivers and streams, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is in charge of establishing statewide health risk standards for atrazine in private water supplies. They also maintain testing for public water supplies and look at how much atrazine is used by farmers in Minnesota.

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website, “when used properly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that [atrazine’s] use and appearance in the environment below specified levels will not result in harm to humans or the environment. All farmers who use atrazine must have training and a special license.” The Minnesota Department of Agriculture did not respond to phone calls and e-mail requesting further comment on the recent backlash against the use of atrazine by press time.

Part of the issue is unclear division of regulatory authority and responsibility between the MPCA, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Department of Health. “Everybody knows there’s a problem,” Wotzka says, “but no one wants to address it…the Department of Agriculture has not imposed any new regulations on any pesticide in the state.”

“MPCA is supposed to promulgate standards—for ground water and surface water—they have been very slow in getting these standards,” says Wotzka, “there are 900 pesticides used in Minnesota and only a handful that have standards. Atrazine has standards but they just look at the levels and say, ‘okay, they’re high but they’re close.’ They’re basically putting their heads in the sand.”

Wotzka’s whistleblower lawsuit against the MPCA is moving slowly. The MPCA and Wotzka are in agreement that Wotzka’s termination is a result of what happened at his previous job at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture alleges that Wotzka removed a significant amount of hard data, such as field logs and analysis sheets, from his previous job in Rochester to his new job at MPCA. They say he also deleted thousands of critical files from his computer, and wrongfully filed a change of address form that forwarded mail addressed to his old office in the Department of Agriculture to his new one at MPCA. Wotzka attests that the nature of the data he is accused of destroying was never specified and that no one has identified the mail that was incorrectly sent.

CORRECTION: The original October 8 TC Daily Planet article quoted MPCA Communications Director Amy Rudolph as saying about Wotzka: “The MPCA didn’t think there was any concern. [His firing] was not from anyone at MPCA or anything he did while at MPCA.” In making this statement, Rudolph was referring to Wotzka’s proposed testimony before the legislative committee about atrazine, and saying that MPCA did not think this was a reason for termination. Gaylen Reetz of MPCA told Wotzka he could not testify before the legislative committee. However, the MPCA did not initiate his termination. Wotzka’s termination was done by the Department of Employee Relations, after an investigation conducted by the Department of Employee Relations at the request of the Department of Agriculture.

According to Wotzka, his termination came in direct retaliation for his request to testify before a legislative committee about atrazine levels in Minnesota waters. He had been invited to testify by State Representative Ken Tschumper in March. Tschumper planned to introduce a bill that would move the power of pesticide regulation from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Wotzka planned to use a slide presentation to supplement his testimony. He forwarded the presentation to his supervisor for approval. Regional MPCA Division Director Gaylen Reetz forwarded Wotzka’s e-mail to Dan Stoddard, the Assistant Director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Seven days later, Wotzka was placed on investigatory leave and a month later, he was fired. In a letter to Rep. Tschumper one month after Wotzka’s termination, Pat Anderson, Commissioner of Employee Relations, wrote that a complaint was made and an investigation of Wotzka began months before Tschumper contacted Wotzka about testifying.

After months of interviews and legal proceedings, Wotzka’s goal remains to inform the public about pesticide regulation in the state, even if his personal and professional lives have been significantly altered. “There are lots of ways to change public policy and a lawsuit is one of them,” he says, “if we change public policy, then yeah, it’s worth it. What do I want? I’d like my reputation back and I’d like my job back.”

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