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Pesticide-tainted seed spread on fields

Winnipeg Free Press
By: Paul Egan

The province allowed a waste company to dispose of about 1,250 tonnes of contaminated canola seed by spreading it on land that drains into the Red River near St. Jean Baptiste.

The seed had been treated with lindane, a slow-to-break-down insecticide and suspected carcinogen that the Canadian government withdrew from use on canola in 2001, following a similar ban in the United States.

Depending on concentrations, short-term exposure to humans can cause high body temperature and accumulation of liquid in the lungs, while long-term exposure to lindane can cause liver and kidney damage and possibly cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lindane is also toxic to fish.

A compost of the contaminated seed was spread on the farmland between May 2002 and November 2004, said Steve Davis, director of environmental programs for Manitoba Conservation. The land drains into the Red River and Lake Winnipeg, but the province does not know how much lindane reached the waterways because Davis said it has done no water testing.

Richard Wiles, senior vice-president of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. and an expert on pesticide pollution, said the lindane poses a potential risk to fish and other water life and could be draining from the soil into the river and lake for several years.

"It's definitely not what I think most experts would consider a responsible way of disposing of it," Wiles said. "Dumping it out in the environment is not what I think you would recommend -- that's why we banned it in the first place."

Davis said the province authorized Miller Environmental Corp. to experiment with disposing of the treated seed by spreading it on farmland.

The province authorized Miller to spread the contaminated seed on four farms near St. Jean Baptiste between 2002 and 2004, Davis said. Some of the land is owned by Miller and some is privately owned, he said.

Despite that, no new environmental licence was required, he said. Manitoba Conservation wrote a letter authorizing Miller Environmental to spread the lindane-treated seed under the authority of its existing licence to operate its waste-treatment facility near the farms, Davis said.

Environment Canada is investigating the practice after receiving a complaint referred to it by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Barry Briscoe, manager of environmental protection for Environment Canada in Winnipeg.

Davis said the most recent test results available are from 2002. He said those tests showed low levels of lindane in both the soil and in crops grown on the land where the contaminated seed had been spread. But he said Manitoba Conservation has never tested water in the drains around the farms, which drain into the Red River less than two kilometres away.

A consultant's report said runoff would not be a concern, he said.

Davis was not able to provide specific figures from the 2002 testing and said the results of more recent soil testing are still being awaited. Nor was he able to provide details on the lindane concentration in the composted seed material that was spread on the farmland, except to say that it was higher than 0.4 milligrams per litre.

Miller Environmental received about 2,500 tonnes of the lindane-treated canola seed from United Grain Growers, he said. The company disposed of the less-contaminated half at its waste-treatment facility and the other half by spreading it on the farmland, he said.

Co-ordinated spreading

Ross Edmunds, general manager of Miller Environmental Corp., said his company co-ordinated the spreading of the lindane-treated seed by MidCanada Environmental Services Ltd. of Winnipeg. MidCanada officials did not return phone calls.

"We didn't have a heck of a lot to do with it" except that the spreading was done under Miller's environmental licence, Edmunds said.

A cleaning and composting process before the spreading removed about 90 per cent of the lindane, he said.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said he's surprised the province would approve such an experiment, particularly without public notification or consultation.

"To do this without any water testing is irresponsible," Gerrard said. "It's unbelievable."

In addition to concerns about fish, there are drinking-water intakes on the Red River downstream from St. Jean Baptiste. Wiles, the Washington pesticide expert, said he thought potential harm to fish would be greater than the drinking-water worries.

Tory agriculture critic Jack Penner said he received a complaint about the seed-spreading from Walter Neidhardt, a neighbouring farmer who was in Germany yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

"If it was permitted by the province of Manitoba, as I've been told that it was, then the province would, I think, have some answering to do," Penner said.

Anne-Marie Fillion, who farms with her husband Robert near St. Jean Baptiste, said the couple was paid to receive the lindane-treated canola seed on two occasions, most recently last fall.

Aside from Neidhardt, "the neighbours have no problem with it," Fillion said. "At least now it doesn't smell and it's incorporated in the ground. Everything is OK."

Because it's mixed with compost, the treated seed actually improves the soil, she said. "It's a win-win situation for us."

Facts about lindane

  • Chemical name: hexachlorocyclohexane
  • Properties: A white crystalline organic solid.
  • Uses: Increasingly restricted as an insecticide, lindane is also the active ingredient in certain shampoos used to kill head lice.
  • Health risks: Depends on levels and duration of exposure, but linked to liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.
  • Persistence: Will break down in soil, but process takes many years. Not broken down by microbes in water.


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