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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How Idaho became the target of an influence campaign to protect pesticide companies

A tractor drives through an old farm field on Sept. 19, 2019, in North Idaho.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)
By Ian Max Stevenson Idaho Statesman

Clutching handwritten notes on yellow sheets of paper, Idaho state Sen. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, stood up to debate against a bill. The proposal before lawmakers, a month into the legislative session, would have limited the damage pesticide manufacturers faced from thousands of lawsuits. Those manufacturers included Bayer, an agrochemical giant and major employer in eastern Idaho.

Ruchti, a trial lawyer, argued the bill would bar Idaho residents harmed by chemicals from any way to seek relief. There’s “only one place” where they “can go toe to toe with a multibillion, multinational corporation and have a shot at getting justice,” the Democrat said. “It’s in a courtroom.”

Ruchti’s broadside against the bill and subsequent testimony from far-right Republicans signified an unusual bipartisan coalition of lawmakers aligned against legislation that would grant wide immunity to manufacturers of agricultural chemicals. The bill failed by four votes.

But the proposal marked the beginning of pesticide companies’ expensive, nationwide push to limit the damage from court actions filed over the potential harms caused by their products. A day later, Syngenta, a Chinese government-owned pesticide maker, registered two lobbyists with the Secretary of State’s Office.

In the three months of the legislative session, the push from the industry brought tens of thousands in public advertisements, thousands of dollars of campaign donations, free bottles of Roundup, and private calls with the head of Bayer’s U.S. operations – all aimed at convincing legislators to seal off prominent herbicides like Roundup from most liability lawsuits.

Sens. Rick Just and Janie Ward-Engelking, Boise Democrats who opposed the bills, told the Idaho Statesman they were both offered and accepted phone calls with Sebastian Guth, president of Bayer’s U.S. operations, and that lawmakers were given free bottles of Roundup.

“It seemed to be a pretty full-court press,” Jonathan Oppenheimer, a lobbyist with the Idaho Conservation League, which opposed the bill, told the Statesman by phone.

Nearly identical bills followed in Iowa and Missouri, which along with Idaho represent a trio of states where Bayer, the German manufacturer that controls Roundup, located its U.S. operations. Bayer, which purchased Roundup’s creator, Monsanto, has already paid out billions in jury verdicts and settlements.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and paraquat, used in herbicides made by Syngenta, are two of the most popular weed killers in the U.S. Both have disputed links between their products and fatal diseases and have settled with plaintiffs for billions in total. Bayer and Syngenta have denied their products cause disease.

To critics, the slate of proposed bills and influence campaign were attempts by an industry player to inoculate itself from liability for harming people. An unusual alliance between the state’s most hard-line Republicans and Democrats kept the bills from passing this year, and the efforts in Iowa and Missouri also failed to become law. But lawmakers and analysts in Idaho expect similar pesticide bills to make another appearance next year.

Khaldoun Baghdadi, a lead attorney on a case involving 5,000 farmers who sued Syngenta, told the Statesman by email that if such a bill became law, “Idahoans exposed to paraquat who have since developed Parkinson’s disease would have been prevented from pursuing justice for their injuries.” Some of the plaintiffs live in Idaho.

“The bill would have also sent the message to foreign agrichemical giants like Bayer and Syngenta that they are free to sell their dangerous products in Idaho with impunity,” he said, “even when they conceal and ignore science in pursuit of profits.”

Bayer wants protection from lawsuits

Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, in February introduced the first version of the pesticide liability bill to a Senate committee. He explained that it would protect farmers, agriculture, and the state’s mining industry, and would reduce reliance on foreign countries for chemicals.

Then he turned his time over to James Curry, Bayer’s deputy director for state and local government affairs. Though corporations are rarely listed as crafting Idaho bills, Roger Batt, a lobbyist for Bayer, was a listed sponsor of Harris’ bill.

Curry told senators that the bill would protect companies like his from lawsuits and argued that glyphosate is safe. He said his company needed help from the Legislature and that legal costs were threatening Bayer’s bottom line and its ability to conduct new research.

Two lobbyists for Bayer spent more than $8,000 on travel and entertainment of lawmakers, according to secretary of state records. At least six lobbyists pushed this winter to pass the pesticide legislation. The Idaho Grain Producers Association took out full-page print advertisements in newspapers across the state, including the Statesman, asking lawmakers to pass a version of the bill.

“Side with Idaho Farmers Not Trial Lawyers,” read one. “Protect Idaho Farmers’ Access to Glyphosate,” read another. “Don’t make Idaho farmers reliant on China.”

In total, the association spent nearly $50,000 on advertisements for the bill.

Stacey Satterlee, a spokesperson for the association, said Idaho’s wheat and barley farmers rely on the chemical.

“We need to have access to chemistries, we need to have access to pesticides,” she said. “The threat of having them taken away is real.”

Monsanto, the company that originally sold Roundup, later developed genetically modified seeds that were resistant to the chemical, cornering a profitable market by offering farmers a means to kill weeds without affecting their crops. Producers of sugar beets, corn and soybeans in Idaho use the chemical and the seeds, Satterlee said, while wheat and barley farmers use Roundup. Idaho’s crops are a $5 billion industry, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

International and U.S. regulatory agencies have sparred over whether glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, could cause cancer. While the Environmental Protection Agency told the Statesman the “overwhelming consensus” is that it’s “unlikely,” some studies have found a “compelling link” between glyphosate exposure and increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer.

The disputed links to cancer have led to a flood of lawsuits over the last decade. Though Bayer has won most of its recent trials, the German company has sustained major losses: Since it acquired Monsanto six years ago, Bayer has settled nearly $10 billion worth of claims, and juries have awarded billions in damages. Tens of thousands of cases are still outstanding.

In the six years since Bayer acquired Monsanto, its stock prices have fallen by 76%.

The lawsuits against Bayer have focused on a type of court action known as “failure to warn,” which means plaintiffs allege a company did not properly warn consumers about its product’s risks. The pesticide bills, if passed, would prohibit those claims entirely so long as the company placed the EPA-approved pesticide label on the product.

Records have shown both Monsanto and Syngenta tried to foreground scientific research displaying their products’ safety and discount research that found the opposite, according to national reports.

Curry, a Bayer lobbyist, said efforts in California to label Roundup as a carcinogen, as well as the litany of lawsuits, are “creating uncertainty about how we move forward providing that product here in the United States.”

Representatives of Bayer maintained in an interview with the Statesman that passing their proposed law would still leave companies open to legal liability if people believed they had knowingly withheld information linking its products to disease.

Jess Christiansen, a Bayer spokesperson, said the company is heavily regulated and that its glyphosate products are safe. The company adjusted its off-the-shelf Roundup formula to remove glyphosate, while the version sold to farmers still contains the chemical, she said.

But a legal expert and opponents of the legislation, like Daniel Hinkle, a senior counsel at the American Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers, told the Statesman the new law would bar most lawsuits.

“Bayer’s lawyers in court and Syngenta’s lawyers in court would argue that this (law) completely eliminates and wipes out” future lawsuits, Hinkle said.

David Pimentel, a University of Idaho law professor who teaches tort law, told the Statesman that removing “failure to warn” lawsuits would be a “huge” win for the industry because it “insulates them from a huge layer of liability.” It also puts “tremendous confidence” in the EPA, he said.

Paraquat, another type of pesticide, is also widely used in the U.S. Syngenta produces many of these paraquat products and is owned by the Sinochem Corp., which the Defense Department previously classified as a Chinese military company. Syngenta faces thousands of lawsuits over its own products and registered its own lobbyists on the Idaho bills.

Paraquat used as labeled has “no link” to Parkinson’s disease, the EPA told the Statesman by email.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Syngenta said products approved by the EPA “do not pose any unreasonable risks.”

“Syngenta rejects the claims of a causal link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease because it is not supported by scientific evidence,” spokesperson Kathy Eichlin said. She added that “no scientist or doctor has ever concluded in a peer-reviewed scientific analysis” that paraquat causes Parkinson’s.

A hard push to pass Idaho pesticide bill

The sequence of pesticide bills displayed the behind-the-scenes workings of the Capitol, where lobbyists and lawmakers carefully count votes in committees and on the floor to see whether a bill would pass.

In the three weeks after the first bill failed on the Senate floor, lawmakers introduced two other versions that made concessions: one that wouldn’t outright ban lawsuits against the manufacturers, but would set a high bar for lawsuits to proceed, and another that would put a sunset on the bill after 2027.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, told the Statesman that lawmakers dropped the later versions of the bill in part because Bayer’s lobbyists were keeping tabs on how senators felt about the new bills, and eventually concluded they would have failed on the floor, too.

A similar course was proceeding in Iowa, where the state’s Senate amended one of the early bills to exempt any pesticides manufactured by Chinese state-owned companies. The proposal would have kept in place protections against Roundup lawsuits but potentially allowed claims against Syngenta to proceed. Syngenta opposed that version of the Iowa bill.

Other industry supporters of the Idaho bill included the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and Amalgamated Sugar. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, gave the versions successively better ratings, ranging from a poor -2 to a neutral zero on the final version.

Bayer and a political action committee of its employees made contributions in January to Republican leaders’ re-election campaigns. Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, bill sponsor Harris, and House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, each received the maximum $1,000, while House Majority Caucus Chairman Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, and Assistant House Majority Leader Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, got $500. The company also gave $10,000 to the Idaho Prosperity Fund, a business-aligned PAC.

Oppenheimer said his environmental group became particularly worried about the potential for a pesticide bill to pass after the third version was backed by Senate Republican leaders in the waning days of the session.

At a Senate hearing, Winder said the pesticide bill was a “going home bill,” a term lawmakers often use to describe their highest-priority agendas. The bill never got a hearing. Ruchti told the Statesman that without legal recourse, corporations can secure protection simply by going to the Legislature. “They’ve got the resources to bring a bunch of lobbyists in and tell a very one-sided story,” he said.

Herndon, a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus who coordinated the limited Republican opposition to the bills with Ruchti, said he can understand why lawmakers are concerned about farmers in their districts losing access to products they feel are essential to their operations. But he said those same agricultural workers are the people most likely to be harmed by a dangerous chemical.

Herndon said lobbyists for Bayer were “constantly” meeting with lawmakers during the session and were particularly focused on swaying Republicans who had voted against the first version. The company’s lobbyists likely hoped some who opposed the bill would no longer be at the Capitol next year, he added. Herndon lost his re-election bid in the GOP primary last month.

When days remained in the session, he said the efforts escalated, and that Batt and other lobbyists told him Bayer would have to fire their 800 employees in Southeast Idaho and declare bankruptcy two weeks after the session ended if the bills didn’t pass.

“I bet you two weeks after the session you’re not going to file bankruptcy,” Herndon said he told them. “And guess what? I was right. But nice threat.”

In an email, Batt told the Statesman that he never said the company would be filing for bankruptcy, but rather shared with lawmakers a Bloomberg report that the company was considering a bankruptcy filing. Batt said Bayer representatives shared with legislators that if the company were “forced to continue to pay out billions in ridiculous punitive damage awards,” it could be making some cuts that impact those employed in Idaho.

Bayer could bring another bill forward in Idaho next year and scheduled a luncheon for lawmakers in January 2025, according to a copy of the calendar obtained by the Statesman. Harris told the Statesman that a bill next year might get more votes if lawmakers get more “education” from Bayer beforehand.

“I was surprised how many Republicans were using environmentalist talking points on the issue,” he said. “It kind of made for a strange alliance between those Democrats and those Republicans that opposed the bill.”

He said Bayer brought the idea for the bill to him because they were “going on the offensive.” Harris represents Soda Springs, where the company located its phosphate mines and manufacturing plant, and said residents of his district have relied on Bayer for jobs for years.

Though tens of thousands of claimants have brought lawsuits against Roundup around the country, none have yet been filed in Idaho, according to the company. Herndon said the proposed sunset provision was a “dead giveaway” that Bayer hoped to make Idaho a model state, which could help it pass similar legislation across the country.

The company also looked to change laws at the federal level. In Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is a cosponsor on a bipartisan federal bill that would extend immunity protections against labeling lawsuits across the country. Simpson has received $12,500 in donations in the past two years from PACs connected to Bayer and Syngenta and thousands more from other agriculture industry groups.

Oppenheimer said he recognizes that the science about harms is disputed and that farmers see value in the chemicals. But he said courts give plaintiffs an opportunity for their injuries to be evaluated, and that he is concerned about the tradeoffs for public health and the environment of using these chemicals.

“Ultimately it’s a question of, ‘If this is such a certifiably safe product, then why in the world would you need immunity from any liability?’ ” he said.