2016-08-12 / Front Page

City pushes for no-penalty pesticide ban

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Before a capacity crowd that hung through nearly four hours of debate — enough to render interim City Manager Don Gerrish droopy-eyed — the South Portland City Council pushed forward an ordinance designed to ban the use of chemical pesticides.

However, in edits made since the last workshop session on the topic back in April, the proposed “Pesticide Use Ordinance” —which also seeks to regulate herbicides — ends the previous distinction between synthetic and organic control methods, switching the focus instead to “allowed,” versus “prohibited” pesticides.

“We’re only talking here about the cosmetic use of pesticides,” said Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, who acted as a consultant on the ordinance. “We have established with lawn care and turf management that these chemicals are not needed in order to achieve our expectations in terms of effective playing fields, home lawns and gardens, etc.”

Feldman also broached a topic not previously addressed by advocates of the ordinance proposal, who had previously addressed only the harm some pesticides are believed to do the environment, particularly the Casco Bay watershed. Limiting the use of certain products, he said, could be seen as the council acting to protect residents of South Portland, as well.

“The amount of chemicals that go on a home lawn, in terms of a concentration of use on a per acre basis, is as high, if not higher, than a soybean field,” he said. “We’re actually putting more of this stuff down on our lawns that we are using in agriculture. So, when you go out there and apply these things, you’re exposing yourself to a high degree of chemical load, and then breast cancer and other end points that emerge from the studies, like Parkinson’s disease, we find that pesticides contribute to these dysfunctions. And children are more susceptible because they take in more chemicals from exposure in terms of body weight. We see not only children exposed in the womb, but next-generational effects from this exposure.”

The newest draft of the ordinance does exempt a host of products from regulation, including those used in commercial agriculture, pet supplies, household disinfectants, insect repellants, rat control supplies, swimming and pool supplies, and “general use” paints and stains, all “when used in the manner specified by the manufacturer.”

Still, as it stands, the ordinance has been called one of the most progressive and far-reaching pesticide control measures in the nation. After South Portland followed Portland’s lead last year in banning the use of plastic grocery bags, by implementing a 5-cent fee per bag, Portland officials have indicated a willingness to march in lockstep with South Portland on its pesticide proposal, once it is implemented and assessed.

The draft ordinance considered at the August 8 council workshop does not prohibit the sale or possession of pesticides and herbicides that are deemed to be a health hazard. However, only pest and weed controls defined by the federal Environmental Control Agency to be “minimum risk,” would be allowed for use. However, all pesticides would be banned from use within a 75-foot buffer from water bodies, including drainage ditches.

The updated version allows for waivers in the case of a public health emergency, should there be an outbreak in disease traced to things like mosquitoes, poison ivy, or tree-killing insects. However, it now takes the power to grant those waivers from a seven-member pest management advisory committee (PMAC), and hands it to a two-person subcommittee of that group, which would include its chairman and one other member, “at least one of whom must be a Maine Board of Pesticide Control-licensed landscape professional.”

In other changes, the city’s parks superintendent is out as a PMAC member, replaced by a “practicing agronomist,” while at least one of two members who must be licensed by the Maine Board of Pesticide Control must now also be accredited by the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

In a phased-in approach, the ban on prohibited pesticides would go into effect on most city property as of May 1, 2017, and then apply to almost all private property on May 1, 2018. Meanwhile, the Sable Oaks Golf Club, as well as the city’s own public gold course, would get a pass until May 1, 2019.

Fines for violating the ordinance, which, in earlier versions of the proposal, ranged as high as $1,000 following a first warning, have now been excised completely.

Instead, all possible violations are to be reported the city’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, who will attempt to gain complains “though education,” along with retention of records on how each complaint is resolved.

Those records would be published on the city website. However, in a nod to personal privacy, the list of alleged violations and resolution methods will be detailed by property tax map numbers, rather than specific street addresses.

Still, this approach seemed to trouble Councilor Linda Cohen, who raised the issue of neighbors ratting on neighbors. She voiced support instead for rattling cages for enforcement at higher levels of government, while raising funds locally to start a public awareness campaign across a wider area than just South Portland, to help people understand the potential dangers of many pesticides.

“It is bad practice for a government to pass something that it can not enforce,” she said. “One of the things I’ve heard from the public, and they’re very angry about this, is that we want to push this onto them. Let’s (instead) adopt a resolution that tries to get across to the public, whom we should be trusting to do the right thing, and give them the opportunity to do the right thing first, before we inflict something on them that says what they can and cannot do on their private property, and makes them start reporting on their neighbors, or doing things when it’s dark out.

“I think education is the answer,” Cohen continued. “I want to see this stuff started even earlier that the first grade, because the children will take this stuff home and they will push it and they will push it.”

The remainder of the council, on the other hand, voiced strong support for the new measure, even as they acknowledged measurements to verify compliance, or not, would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement. The need, they said was to “err on the side of caution.”

“We don’t yet really know what these chemicals can do to us, or what they have already done to us,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said, adding that regulation before the final analysis is more then Chicken Little posturing.

“We all know the DDT scare that was real, the mercury scares that were real, and the lead scares, that were real,” she said. “I think this is a little moderate, maybe, and at some point its going to need some beefing up.”

Some, did indeed want even stronger measures, despite complaints of overreach from some opponents of the proposal, who have claimed constitutional transgressions. Councilor Brad Fox also said the issue is about more than personal property rights, that the city has an obligation to act on behalf of renters.

“Kids are playing on the grass just week after those little yellow flags (indicating pesticide application) have been put up all over our neighborhood,” he said. “I was a school principal and I’ve seen the increase in kids on the autism spectrum, and it’s pretty dramatic. So, I’m very concerned about kids’ health and also adult health, and out pets’ health, when we have absolutely no control over what gets put down.”

Others said the current draft was about as much as the council could hope for without inciting a full-scale insurrection.

“This is about as good a compromise as you’re going to get,” Councilor Claude Morgan said. “We have taken the time to put this through a very clean melding process where we have listened to more of the players. I think we have room for amendments and changes in language once we get this started up, but I don’t see how we could do it any better. My recommendation is, let’s start the engine.”

Still, while there seemed to be less pushback than at previous meetings on the topic over the past year, some speakers still triumphed an alternative method of control known as integrated pest management, which promotes so-called “best management practices” over outright bans of any specific substance.

“There are better ways to approach this than what’s in front of you today,” said Portland attorney Jim Cohen, speaking on behalf of the landscaping group Mainers for Greener Communities.

The city council is expected to review the ordinance in a first reading at its August 15 meeting, with final passage possible as soon as September 7.

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