Tuesday, April 28, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dow Fears Use Of Its Herbicide On Cocaine -- U.S. Advocating Use Of Powerful Chemical On Colombian Jungle

The Dallas Morning News

BOGOTA, Colombia - It is a herbicide so strong that just a few granules sprinkled over a pesky tuft of grass on a driveway in San Francisco killed an oak tree several yards away.

Dow Agro Sciences, the manufacturer of the herbicide known as Tebuthiuron, or Spike, is so concerned about its potential misuse that it warns customers never to apply it near trees, water sources or any place where it can accidentally kill desirable plant life. It specifically says this is not the product for wide-scale eradication of illicit drug crops.

Now Dow, the same corporation that manufactured the controversial defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, finds itself in the unusual position of siding with international environmental groups against a U.S. government proposal to make Tebuthiuron a centerpiece in the war on drugs in Colombia.

President Ernesto Samper's government, which is under heavy U.S. pressure to improve the results of its drug-crop eradication program, says it is reviewing a report by U.S. government researchers listing Tebuthiuron as the most effective of several potential eradication chemicals.

The researchers insist the herbicide can be used safely while going far toward putting drug traffickers out of business.

Environmental groups and concerned politicians in Colombia are warning of potential disaster.

"It's insanity," said federal legislator Alegria Fonseca. "This chemical was never designed for eradication. It was meant to be applied on weeds in industrial parks . . . It is not selective in what it wipes out."

Dow spokesman Ted McKinney agreed. "Tebuthiuron is not labeled for use on any crops in Colombia, and it is our desire that this product not be used for illicit crop eradication," he said. "It can be very risky in situations where the territory has slopes, rainfall is significant, desirable plants or trees are nearby, and application is made under less-than-ideal circumstances."

Decertification possible

The debate goes to the heart of U.S. and Colombian efforts to curb the flood of drugs being produced and exported from Colombia, which is the principal supplier of most cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States.

U.S. officials have made it clear that unless Colombia takes decisive action to curb the rapid expansion of coca and opium cultivation, it could risk returning to the list of nations decertified by Washington as allies in the war on drugs. Colombia was removed from that list only last month after enduring two years as an international pariah.

Despite a stepped-up aerial eradication program by Colombian anti-narcotics police, the amount of land under illicit cultivation has nearly doubled in the past five years to around 150,000 acres, according to government statistics.

Guerrillas protect crops

Officials of both countries said the expansion is being fueled by guerrilla groups who protect illicit fields, labs and airstrips, and who try to shoot down aircraft involved in eradication.

"There are several problems preventing the program in Colombia from being as successful as it could be," said a State Department official. With the more environment-friendly herbicide currently preferred by the Colombian government, Glyfosate, application must be performed by crop-dusters flying slowly and close to the ground, the official said.

Crop-dusters are particularly vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire under such conditions.

In addition, Glyfosate can be picked up and diverted by wind or dissolved by rainwater, two factors that have radically reduced its effectiveness, the official said.

Colombia's anti-narcotics police commander, Col. Leonardo Gallego, said his forces sprayed Glyfosate, which is known commercially as Roundup, across more than 45,000 acres of coca and opium fields last year. He described the results as "good" but is backing a change to Tebuthiuron. A State Department official said Glyfosate experienced less than a 50 percent rate of effectiveness in 1996.

Benefits of Tebuthiuron

U.S. Department of Agriculture herbicide researcher Charles Helling said the advantage of Tebuthiuron is that it can be applied from high altitudes and fast speeds in any conditions, with a far higher rate of effectiveness.

He said he has tested the herbicide under circumstances simulating the tropical weather conditions and topography of Colombia and found little to justify the type of concerns expressed by Dow and environmental groups.

Some proponents of Tebuthiuron have suggested that Dow is backing away from its use for eradication for fear that the company could become vulnerable to lawsuits, as it did in the case of Agent Orange. Dow's McKinney declined to address such assertions but noted that Tebuthiuron is not harmful to humans.

One industry observer who works closely with Tebuthiuron said there are a number of conditions present in Colombia that could lead to widespread deforestation if the herbicide is wrongly or accidentally applied.

"What if a plane is loaded with the stuff and it crashes or it takes a hit from the guerrillas? If you have to dump a load, you could create a desert," he said. "This stuff is extremely water soluble. It moves with water. If it comes in contact with the root system of a tree, that tree is gone."

Environmental groups including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have objected even to the limited testing of Tebuthiuron in Colombia, arguing that the rainy weather, steep mountain slopes and heavily wooded areas make it too risky for such an herbicide. Members of Samper's government also have raised concerns but have expressed willingness to consider the U.S. proposals.

Deputy Environment Minister Carlos Fonseca and Helling noted that the amount of deforestation and pollution caused by drug traffickers dwarfs the environmental problems posed by the use of herbicides in eradication. They said that massive amounts of chemical fertilizers are used in drug cultivation, while rivers and streams near jungle laboratories are routinely polluted with chemicals used to process cocaine.

A 1997 U.N. report estimated that each year, more than 5 million gallons of precursor chemicals like ethyl ether, acetone, ammonia, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid are dumped into tributaries that feed the Amazon River.

"The amount of deforestation caused by coca growing is increasing all the time. That's the real issue," Helling said. "The point I try to make is that there is no biodiversity in a coca field. They're planting a mono-culture with only one goal, and they don't care what happens to the environment."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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