A lawn care company that is accused of applying chemical pesticides for customers who believed they were getting organic treatments faces as much as $37,000 in fines in a proposed consent agreement with the state pesticides board.

The state Board of Pesticides Control says Purely Organic Lawncare of York Harbor violated pesticides laws and regulations by applying chemical pesticides at Colby College in Waterville and the Wainwright Recreation Complex in South Portland.

The company’s founder and chief operating officer says his employees applied chemical pesticides only for customers who agreed to the treatment. James Reinertson said his company did nothing wrong and he is upset that the consent agreement was released publicly before it was finalized.

On May 11, the board tabled consideration of the proposed agreement pending further discussion. Reinertson said he will meet with the board again in September to take up the issue.

The proposed agreement describes the company as “engaged in a pattern of fraudulent business practices involving both commercial and residential customers.”

The board’s investigator also reported that employees were not wearing the protective gear needed for the pesticide that was found in tests. The federal Environmental Protection Agency requires workers who handle that pesticide to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, shoes and socks, and chemical-resistant gloves.

“The violations were not isolated incidents, but ingrained operating practices of the company. The types of violations were extensive,” reads the proposed settlement. “The company realized an economic benefit and competitive advantage from their practices.”

Purely Organic would have to pay $18,000 of a $37,000 fine under the consent agreement.

Reinertson said he employs seven service people. The lawn care company is part of a family of companies owned by Reinertson that also manufactures organic lawn care products in Seabrook, N.H. The company sells those products retail and wholesale.

The state pesticides board says it began its investigation in 2010, when two incidents involving Purely Organic came to its attention.

According to the proposed consent agreement, a board inspector who was doing a routine inspection of a Purely Organic job site at Colby College got positive test results for chemical herbicides, even though company signs on the turf said it had been treated with organic fertilizer.

A Purely Organic foreman told the inspector that the application was organic, and a Colby grounds supervisor said he had ordered an organic weed management product, according to the proposed agreement.

Reinertson said Friday that the contract with Colby allowed Purely Organic to use both organic fertilizer and traditional — non-organic — herbicides.

A week after the inspection at Colby, the board says, it got a complaint from a parent in South Portland, who said he believed the Wainwright fields had been treated with an herbicide but no signs were posted to notify the public.

Purely Organic had treated the fields a week earlier under an agreement with the city that dated to 2008. The city paid Purely Organic about $10,000 per year for organic turf treatments.

Samples taken by an inspector from two locations at Wainwright tested positive for an herbicide not listed in any of the company’s job proposals, product information sheets or invoices, according to the proposed consent agreement.

“Based on the above evidence,” the proposed agreement says, “it was determined that Purely Organic engaged in fraudulent business practices in the application of pesticides at the South Portland Wainwright Recreation Complex.”

Reinertson denied that Friday. He said his company applied only organic fertilizer at the field and his crews did not have weed control products with them. “Our view is that they tested a field we don’t even treat at that property,” he said.

In a letter to customers, included with the board’s May 11 meeting agenda, the company said that at the time of the investigation in 2010, it had transitioned from using chemical applications, and chemical residues remained on trucks that were used to apply treatments.

“We believe that all of our products were safe and continue to be safe and what they are labeled as being,” says the letter, which characterized the initiation of the investigation as a “witch hunt” started by competitors.

After the proposed agreement was released with the board’s May 11 agenda, South Portland City Manager James Gailey said he felt “blindsided” by it, and decided to “step away” from using Purely Organic, which had continued to provide lawn care services for the city.

“We didn’t even know there was an investigation going on,” Gailey said.

The city received the results of the 2010 lab test, but didn’t hear anything else from the board.

In Scarborough, Town Manager Tom Hall said Purely Organic recently submitted a bid to provide organic turf management services in town, but he decided to consider other bids after learning about the proposed consent agreement.

“That was reason enough for me to look elsewhere,” he said. “There’s nothing they can say or do to cause me to think differently.”

Henry Jennings, director of the pesticides board, would answer questions only by email Friday.

He said the board investigates an average of 100 complaints each year and ratifies an average of 13 administrative consent agreements annually.

Under state law, a pesticide is “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pests” and any substance or mixture that is used as a plant regulator, defoliant or desiccant.

Companies that apply pesticides must be licensed by the state. In his email, Jennings said about 300 companies are licensed in Maine, and the state does not differentiate between organic and non-organic application companies.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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