As the harvest season approached in 1995, Texas cotton farmers had a boll weevil problem.
The agriculture industry, then one of the biggest in the nation and vital to the Lone Star State's economy, projected that the beetle -- which feeds on cotton -- could wipe out its crop.
Then-Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry had a solution. The Republican urged the cotton farmers to buy into a program to eradicate the pests using 250,000 gallons of the pesticide malathion.
It didn't go as planned. Malathion may have gotten rid of the boll weevils, but it also killed beneficial insects that helped keep the crop free of cotton-eating beet armyworms that invaded. As a result, the valley yielded 54,000 bales of cotton -- a far cry from the projected 450,000 bales. According to some estimates, malathion cost cotton growers $140 million in crop losses and put them $9 million in debt to the eradication program.
The episode is emblematic of the now-governor and presidential candidate's tenure as Texas Agriculture Department commissioner, which was marked by a laissez-faire approach to pesticide regulation. That philosophy made Perry the nemesis of environmental groups and government watchdogs, both of which charged that his department neglected its pesticide oversight and enforcement roles.
But it didn't hurt Perry politically. To the contrary, his early efforts on pesticides won the praise and support of Texas' powerful agricultural chemical lobby that, in fact, paved the way to his political ascendancy in the Lone Star State.
"He was a product of the chemical lobby," said Jim Hightower (D), the former Texas Agriculture commissioner whom Perry defeated in 1990. "He wasn't about to step on their toes with any serious regulation."
Perry's history with pesticides begins before he was Agriculture commissioner, and before he was a Republican. As a Democratic state representative in the late 1980s, Perry began attacking Hightower on pesticide regulations.
Hightower was then promulgating some of the most stringent pesticide laws in the country, an effort that irked the pesticide industry.
"It infuriated the chemical lobby," Hightower said in an interview. "They despised me."
Perry introduced legislation that would have stripped Hightower's Agriculture Department of its role regulating pesticides. Ironically, it also would have made Agriculture commissioner an appointed -- rather than elected -- position, a move that likely would have stalled Perry's future political career.
The bill failed, but Perry was able to push through legislation that created the Agriculture Resources Protection Authority (ARPA), a governor-appointed board that diluted some of Hightower's authority.
Hightower said those efforts led the Republican Party, with the backing of the chemical lobby and the Texas Farm Bureau, to employ Karl Rove in recruiting Perry to switch parties and run against Hightower in 1990. The Texas Farm Bureau did not return calls to comment for this story.
During the campaign, Perry effectively used pesticides in political gamesmanship. He criticized Hightower for not banning the use of chlordane, a pesticide that U.S. EPA outlawed in 1983 except for use on termites. Perry's move appealed to urban voters who were concerned about the cancer-causing risks posed by the substance.
It irked critics, however, who found it particularly two-faced that Perry -- the champion of pesticide deregulation in the state House -- was criticizing Hightower on controlling pesticides, especially since Hightower had pushed EPA for stricter chlordane standards.
"To me, it was outrageous that he would attack Hightower on anything having to do with pesticides given his positions in the House," said Rick Lowerre, an environmental lawyer who worked at the Agriculture Department under Hightower.
Perry went on to narrowly defeat Hightower.
Perry's presidential campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But Perry's insistence on the safety of pesticides as Agriculture commissioner was well-known in Texas. In fact, he penned an op-ed in the trade journal AgAir Update in which he argued that many of public health concerns about pesticides on food were the result of inaccurate, alarmist reporting.
"Few Americans realize it takes years of testing, as many as 140 different studies and costs of up to $70 million shouldered by the manufacturer before the EPA registers a pesticide," Perry wrote. "EPA scrutinizes each new chemical's potential to cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects and other health disorders."
He also touted the importance of pesticides to U.S. agriculture.
"Pesticides have given the United States the abundant harvests that make our country the envy of the world," Perry wrote. "Consumers need to understand that pesticides when applied safely present negligible food safety risks and offer major benefits to their health."
U-turn on regulation
Once elected, Perry took the Agriculture Department in the opposite direction from where Hightower was leading it.
His work was chronicled in two reports by government watchdogs. The Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS) released a white paper in 1995 that found that even though Perry's budget for pesticide programs had nearly doubled, investigations and enforcement of illegal pesticide use dropped dramatically.
The paper acknowledged that the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) was in the difficult position of both promoting and developing the state's farming while also regulating pesticide use.
However, TCPS's investigation found a systematic shift away from pesticide regulations under Perry that included firing key enforcement and farm worker protection personnel, changes in policy that authorized inspectors to "ignore oral complaints," and the diversion of funds away from the agency's pesticide programs.
"The 1991 firing of many of the pesticide enforcement personnel in Austin and some of the most experienced inspectors in the field offices left the program with few experienced people to pursue enforcement," the report says. "The program has never recovered."
In 1994, for example, the Agriculture Department prosecuted a third of the pesticide violation cases brought before Perry's agency. Under Hightower in 1990, 64 percent of such cases were pursued, according to the TCPS report.
Moreover, TCPS found the Agriculture Department doled out $79,000 in fines for improper pesticide use in 1989. By 1994, that number had dropped to $31,000. The same was true for pesticide applicator license suspensions: The agency issued 717 days of suspensions in 1989. In 1994, it ordered none.
TCPS was not the only watchdog to take note of these problems. In 1990, U.S. EPA gave TDA an award for pesticide enforcement under Hightower. By 1991, with Perry at the helm, it threatened to cut federal funds to the Texas agency.
"EPA found that TDA had essentially eliminated its enforcement program for pesticides," TCPS concludes.
The Agriculture Department also stopped pursuing right-to-know infractions. The state's right-to-know law required certain employers to notify workers of pesticide use.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a state agency akin to the Government Accountability Office, issued a December 1994 report that found that investigations into right-to-know violations decreased by 53 percent between 1993 and 1994. In 1993, TDA found three cases of noncompliance with the right-to-know law. In 1994, it found none.
"What you see is Perry protected the pesticide companies over the rights of farm workers," said Tom Smith, the director of Public Citizen's Texas office. "He took action to cut back on laws that had been passed that required the cleaning of applicators and prohibited farm workers from being allowed onto fields that had been treated with pesticides."