HARBORSIDE — Anyone who has followed the Portland City Council task force deliberations on a pesticide ordinance over the last year has to have been encouraged by the strong showing at a June 21 hearing. Residents testifying in favor of the most protective regulations – namely, the provisos of an ordinance enacted by South Portland last year – outnumbered by 5 to 1 supporters of the chemical industry-friendly draft ordinance from the Portland task force.

The task force ordinance, which purports to be based on integrated pest management practices and to ban synthetic pesticides on public and private land, is replete with loopholes that allow insecticides, herbicides and fungicides to be used if “the pest population exceeds acceptable safety, economic or aesthetic threshold levels.” Whose “aesthetic threshold”? Someone who objects to dandelions on lawns? Whose “economic threshold”? That of a playground manager who looks for the cheapest way to kill grubs and weeds regardless of the environmental and human health consequences?

The task force also proposes waivers for undefined “emergency” situations, which would undoubtedly include the browntail-moth infestation now plaguing parts of the coast. Among the state-approved insecticides for this pest are four neonicotinoids and three pyrethroids, all deadly to bees and other pollinators. Recent evidence of the harm done by neonicotinoids to both honeybee and wild bee populations makes the case for banning these insecticides in the strongest possible terms.

Although they profess adherence to integrated pest management guidelines for least-toxic products and protocols, regulators and their business allies have hijacked the concept. It now translates to intensive spraying on a schedule rather than integrated pest management. As we saw at the hearing, they construct a straw-man argument based on the concept of organic pest management – the basis of the South Portland ordinance – demonizing organic products like vinegar and essential oils while ignoring the fact that organic pest management means fundamentally building healthy soil.

In addition to promoting this kind of environmentally protective land care, the South Portland ordinance stresses educating residents about organic pest management; Portland’s proposed ordinance does not. Education will be critical to making residents aware of nontoxic alternatives to the insecticides being sprayed to combat the browntail moth as well as the herbicides that destroy food sources and habitat for endangered pollinators.

These poisons, along with fungicides typically used pre-emptively on golf courses, are running off into streams (five of which are ranked “impaired” in Portland) and draining into Casco Bay. Unaccountably, the flawed Portland task force draft has been endorsed by Friends of Casco Bay, whose 2001-2009 stormwater monitoring shows the many lawn and golf-course chemicals polluting the bay.

Consider how the system works now: You live on a Portland street with one or more close neighbors who contract with a landscaper for regular spraying. You’re in a vulnerable subgroup, possibly with children and pets who must be kept inside while chemicals are applied and drifting close enough to you to trigger irritation and other symptoms of concern.

You can pay $20 to be listed on a state notification registry, so that anyone within 250 feet must let you know before the exterminator’s arrival on the scene. But it’s a hit-or-miss system. Pesticides are sometimes applied to the wrong property, or they drift off target, or contractors fail to provide advance notice.

The white flags put up after pesticide applications – with blank spaces for notes on the chemicals used, Environmental Protection Agency registration numbers and reason for spraying – provide none of that information. Why? Neighbors and bystanders exposed involuntarily to those dangerous chemicals have a right to know what has been sprayed.

In the limited cases where South Portland grants waivers for what are deemed emergencies, full disclosure of the pesticides used is required on the warning flags and all properties sprayed under waivers are itemized in the public record.

One final reason to reject the task force proposal: It originated with Deven Morrill, a commercial applicator with Lucas Tree Experts, who also chairs the state pesticide control board. We cannot count on the oversight authority in Augusta, which is known to be more about enabling than controlling pesticide use. Instead, we need a legal framework for transitioning to organic pest management at the local level, as the South Portland model does.

Anyone who’s concerned should write to members of the City Council’s Sustainability Committee (Spencer Thibodeau, Belinda Ray and Jill Duson) at portlandmaine.gov and attend a council-sponsored expert panel on pesticides July 26.


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