The Environmental Protection Agency fined two large biotechnology companies yesterday for violations in growing genetically altered corn in Hawaii, another black eye for an industry reeling from recent problems in complying with government rules on experimental crops.
The fines, against Dow AgroSciences LLC of Indianapolis and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. of Des Moines, were relatively small -- less than $10,000 apiece. There is no evidence yet that the experimental crops contaminated others on the islands of Molokai and Kauai. But Wayne Nastri, an EPA regional administrator, said in a statement that the rules were important "to ensure that no pollen from the experimental corn is transferred to other corn."
Dow AgroSciences agreed to pay $8,800 to settle charges that it failed to plant appropriate buffers of trees and corn to prevent gene transfer from an experimental corn plot. Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., agreed to pay $9,900 to settle charges that it planted experimental corn in an unapproved location that was too close to other corn, a circumstance that might have permitted pollen transfer.
Dow AgroSciences acknowledged an "oversight." The company said it followed safeguards it believed were stricter than those in its EPA permit, but it failed to clear the changes with the agency. "We are disappointed with our performance in this instance," Pete Siggelko, vice president of plant genetics and biotechnology, said in a statement.
Doyle Karr, a Pioneer spokesman, said the company understood its permit to require that the experimental corn plot be planted at least 1,260 feet from commercial corn varieties. The EPA, he said, is interpreting the requirement to also apply to other experimental varieties. He said his company will make sure it understands the rules in the future. "We support a rigorous regulatory framework," Karr said.
The Hawaii violations follow problems in Iowa and Nebraska involving gene-altered corn planted by ProdiGene Inc. of College Station, Tex. The company failed to comply strictly with government containment rules, and the Agriculture Department fined it $250,000. The company was also ordered to dispose of potentially tainted crops -- a requirement that cost it about $3 million.
The ProdiGene corn was genetically altered to produce a pig vaccine not meant for human consumption. In the Hawaii incidents, the corn varieties involved are ultimately meant for human consumption. They fall under EPA jurisdiction because they are designed to produce a type of pesticide -- specifically, a protein that kills worms. Similar proteins in other crops have proven safe for people to eat, though the corn varieties being grown by Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences have yet to win necessary government clearances.