Clemson University confirmed Monday that it is investigating whether aerial spraying at a mega vegetable farm violated pesticide safety laws the same day crop-dusting was blamed for disturbing an elementary school between Aiken and Columbia.
In an email to The State newspaper, Clemson spokesman Jonathan Veit said the university launched the investigation May 8 after receiving a complaint from someone in the Windsor area about crop-dusting.
Veit did not respond to a request for documents showing who filed the complaint. He declined to speculate on when Clemson would complete the investigation.
But Clemson’s investigation is welcome news to some people who live near the Oakwood Windsor Elementary School and a sprawling, industrial-scale farm that opened in 2016 next to the school.
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The farm, launched by an out-of-state agribusiness, has produced a chorus of complaints, including concerns about low-flying airplanes that spray chemicals onto vegetable fields. Since 2013, agribusinesses from Michigan, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado have acquired nearly 10,000 acres in the Edisto River basin between Aiken and Columbia, The State newspaper reported last month. Some of the new crop farms are so large they extend to the horizon, the newspaper reported.
Terry Kane, who lives next to the school and the mega farm, said she regularly sees a crop-dusting plane flying over her property and near the Oakwood Windsor school.
“I’d like to know what they are spraying and what the overall effect is on us,’’ Kane said, adding that she has pets that have suffered eye conditions that she wonders about.
Attempts to reach Aiken County school district spokeswoman Merry Glenne Piccolino have been unsuccessful since Friday.
Three Aiken County Public School District officials said last month that crop dusting near the school probably was to blame for the odor that wafted onto the campus April 26. The smell caused school officials to move some children to other parts of the school for the day and to notify parents of the disturbance. No one was injured, the district said. Aiken officials identified the crop dusting material as fungicides and fertilizer.
At the time, officials said Walther Farms, a Michigan corporation with extensive potato fields, apologized for the incident and pledged not to allow spraying during school hours. Walther Farms executive Jeremy Walther declined comment when reached by The State.
“It ended up that a local company was dusting the crops in our area and the odor crept into the building,’’ according to the text of an automated message to parents from Oakwood Windsor school principal Lynne Shrader.
The district, however, has since toned down its comments about crop dusting, although it has not ruled out crop-dusting as the source of the April 26 problem. District officials have spoken with the S.C. Farm Bureau.
“I did not intend to name crop dusting as the definitive source of the odor and apologize for any misunderstanding,’’ Shrader said in a statement to The State.
A man who has emailed The State saying he was the crop duster on April 26 said the odor came from rotting material in a pit across from the school, not from anything his company sprayed. He declined an interview with The State.
“I went to school officials and showed them why the aircraft had nothing to do with the smell,’’ the email said.
Harry Ott, president of the S.C. Farm Bureau, said his organization welcomes the investigation by Clemson, but he does not believe university pesticide investigators will find any problems related to crop-dusting.
“We are not here to defend people for doing something wrong, but our sources at the school have confirmed to us that they do not believe at this point in time the airplane caused any of the problems, that the smell came from somewhere else,’’ Ott said.
Regardless of the outcome of the Clemson probe, state Rep. Bill Taylor says it’s not a good idea to spray crops near schools when children are there. Taylor, R-Aiken, has introduced a bill to ban crop-dusting during school hours near schools.
Meanwhile, Aiken County’s school district has acknowledged commissioning air quality tests in the school April 26, but so far, has not explained whether the results are cause for concern.
Crop-dusting, the practice of spraying bug-and-weed-killing chemicals onto crop fields, has been a source of complaints across the country through the years. While crop- dusters say they are careful in applying chemicals, some people complain that the material escapes the farm fields and gets onto their property. Smaller farms often apply pesticides from the ground, but aerial spraying can more easily cover large farms.
“Pesticide drift is an insidious threat to human health, as well as to wildlife and ecosystems in and around agricultural and even residential areas where harsh chemicals are used to ward off pests,’’ according to a report in Scientific American, a national magazine that has reported on science and technology for more than a century.
In 2016, Clemson investigated a complaint by one neighbor who said that a crop duster associated with the Woody agribusiness group allowed chemicals to land on property nearby. Clemson officials eventually dismissed the complaint after determining that no harm was done from the aerial spraying.
Clemson, designated as the agency to investigate pesticide complaints in South Carolina, says it has only a handful of cases each year.