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NC5 Investigates: Controversial weed killer may be damaging 200 year old trees on Reelfoot Lake

Posted: 5:15 PM, Nov 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-11-21 00:57:14Z
State imposes new regulations for weed killer
State imposes new regulations for weed killer

Mike Hayes' grandmother built his family's first hotel on Reelfoot lake back in the 1920's.

And his great-grandfather was a tour guide.

"It's been a five generation business," Hayes said.

The shallow lake in Northwest Tennessee was created by an earthquake in 1812.

Tourists have been fascinated by the 200 year old cypress trees that now grow in water.

"We can't replace them and they're really getting hit hard by some new chemicals that we haven't had before," Hayes said.

Controversial weed killer may force some farmers out of business

This summer he took state officials out on the lake to show them the damage he was seeing.

A video shows him pointing out brown areas on trees.

He told state officials a weed killer called Dicamba, that farmers spray on fields all around the lake, often drifts over the water.

He said it has damaged the trees and killed lily pads.

"Before they ever open, the flowers are dying on the stem," Hayes said pointing to a brown lily pad.

He also has videos he says show hazy areas where Dicamba is likely drifting off farms.

Small levels of Dicamba can cause damage to nearby trees or crops.

"Next year or the year after if we don't get something done we are going to see a major kill-off of trees on Reelfoot," Hayes said.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture confirmed that 2 of 16 tests showed levels of Dicamba on the lake, but said the damage to the trees could be caused by other things like a recent drought.

Hayes is convinced Dicamaba is the problem, but he was still reluctant to talk about it.

He worried about upsetting surrounding farmers who need Dicamba to grow their crops, and the big corporation that sells the herbicide.

"People are scared of Monsanto, and what they can do," Hayes said.

Monsanto, which was recently bought by Bayer, sells Dicamba.

"I've never seen politicians so scared of a group in my life. Some of them even have damage themselves, but they will not touch Monsanto," Hayes said.

But Keith Harrison with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture dismissed the idea the state would not take on Monsanto.

"We're going to investigate every complaint as they come in. It doesn't matter the product or who has manufactured it," Harrison said.

He said the state enacted emergency regulations after getting 135 complaints of Dicamba damage last year.

"The biggest thing we found was not always following label instructions," Harrison said.

The state now requires farmers using Dicamba to get training as well as use hooded sprayers during the hottest summer months, when it is most likely to drift.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Is the state doing enough with Dicamba?"

Harrison responded, "We could always do more."

But he also added complaints dropped dramatically this year after some of the new rules went in place.

"I think we are learning how to do a better job of stewarding this technology," Harrison said.

Mike Hayes would like to see a protected zone around the lake where Dicamba cannot be sprayed.

"When you lose a tree at Reelfoot it never comes back," Hayes said.

He said there is too much at stake.

"There's sometimes you got to step out of the box and say 'hey this is wrong, it's not working. We got to do something about it," Hayes said.

The EPA just approved the use of Dicamba for another two years. 

Here is a full statement from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture about Reelfoot Lake:

"Tennessee Department of Agriculture staff—including foresters and pesticide inspectors—worked with staff from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to survey the Reelfoot Lake area and collect vegetation samples after receiving a complaint of possible pesticide drift in early June of this year.

 The TWRA aquatic monitoring operations did not detect anything out of the ordinary in Reelfoot Lake.

Lab results from the samples revealed a variety of factors affecting some of the trees in the area. Of the 16 vegetation samples we took from the Reelfoot Lake area, 2 came back positive for dicamba. However, pesticides like 2,4-d and glyphosate, native insects, and native diseases, as well as other environmental factors, were also found in samples involved with this investigation. Additionally, the trees in the Reelfoot Lake area experienced a heavy drought in 2017 that can cause this type of stress, so we can’t say that dicamba had the sole impact on any damage found in those areas.

 With more recent observations, we have noticed that some trees that showed signs of stress have grown out of the damage.

 We take all complaints seriously and will continue to investigate and monitor this situation. As we mentioned before, through open communication, more training opportunities, and new programs like DriftWatch, we hope to see a continued reduction in pesticide drift concerns in the future."