Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed two straight audits over its unsafe handling of highly toxic agents at the same time the agency is distributing a detailed Homeland Security “checklist” to farmers, ranchers and dairy operators, according to agency documents released today by Sinapu and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The audits, conducted by the Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General in 2005 and 2006, concern a branch of the agency, ironically named Wildlife Services, which exterminates wildlife at the request of farmers and ranchers. In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, Wildlife Services killed 2.7 million animals, principally birds, using an array of lethal chemical agents ranging from sodium cyanide to aluminum phosphate, deployed across the country as bait, in fumigants, sprays and gases.
The Inspector General repeatedly found the agency in violation of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act for failing to secure “dangerous biological agents and toxins,” including not keeping accurate inventories whereby theft, unauthorized sale or other losses of these toxins could be detected. Other violations included regular access to toxins by unauthorized persons, distribution of chemical agents to untrained individuals and inadequate security plans. All ten of the Wildlife Services sites audited by the Inspector General were found to be out of compliance with bioterrorism regulations.
“The larger question is why the federal government is scattering highly dangerous toxicants all across the county as a wildlife control strategy,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring of Sinapu, pointing, as an example, to Compound 1080 (sodium monoflouroacetate), an odorless, colorless, water-soluble agent used to poison coyotes in some states that has raised concerns as a potential chemical warfare threat to water supplies. “For reasons of public safety, as well as environmental integrity, the Department of Agriculture needs to move away from its ‘poison first’ mentality for wildlife management.”
Despite the performance by its Wildlife Services arm, USDA is dispensing advice to farmers in a 20-page “Pre-Harvest Security Guidelines and Checklist 2006” covering a wide range of topics, from storage of agricultural chemicals to trimming trees and shrubs so that “people [cannot] easily hide around the farm” to conducting security checks on pasture lands. Other Homeland Security awareness advice includes installing alarms and motion detectors, as well as issuing “visitor badges.”
“The Department of Agriculture itself poses a bigger homeland security threat than any possible infiltration of Iowa by Al Qaeda,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the USDA has not acted to follow many of the Inspector General’s recommendations or to punish the responsible Wildlife Services managers. “USDA ought to stop giving out homeland security advice until it starts following the most basic bio-security precautions.”
In addition to the lack of toxic controls, the groups have raised concerns about aviation accidents stemming from the Wildlife Services aerial gunning program as well as dangers to people, pets and “non-target” wildlife due to the agency’s indiscriminate se of traps, poisoned bait and other eradication techniques.