Less than an hour after Portland approved a request to allow Cheverus High School to use synthetic pesticides to treat its athletic fields near Back Cove, the school abruptly dropped the plan in the face of criticism by neighbors and anti-pesticide advocates.

The school’s groundskeeper, Matthew TenEyck, initially filed an application on the school’s behalf to use synthetic pesticides to treat a sod webworm infestation on its football and soccer fields next to Baxter Boulevard, not far from Edward Payson Park and Back Cove. The school planned to treat the field with Bifenthrin, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency labels as a possible human carcinogen.

Portland is one of 30 Maine communities with local ordinances to ban or restrict the use of synthetic pesticides. But Portland’s ordinance, adopted in 2018, allows city residents and entities to seek waivers for public health emergencies.

The school’s initial waiver was deemed incomplete at a June 29 meeting of the two-member Waiver Committee of the city’s Pesticide Management Advisory Subcommittee. The committee’s members, citizen and anti-pesticide activist Avery Yale Kamila and Portland’s Sustainability Director Troy Moon, found that the application did not contain enough details regarding the application and management of the pesticide.

TenEyck submitted a second application on June 30, and the application was denied with a 1-1 vote, after Kamila objected to the use of the pesticide at a July 8 meeting.

This is the third waiver request the committee has handled. In March 2019, the city rejected a waiver application from Waynflete School, which wanted permission to use pesticides on its athletic fields off outer Congress Street. In that case, the full seven-member Pesticide Management Advisory Committee reviewed the request and determined the school did not demonstrate an emergency.

Last August, the city granted its first waiver under the ordinance to the seasonal residents of Cushing Island when City Manager Jon Jennings overruled the waiver review committee, after its two members split their votes and effectively rejected the waiver. In that case, as with the Cheverus request, Jennings assigned Lena Geraghty, the director of innovation and performance management in his office, to review the appeal.

Kamila, who writes the Portland Press Herald’s vegan column, voted against the Cheverus waiver. She proposed that TenEyck employ organic strategies – such as allowing the grass to grow longer – to prevent the infestation.

TenEyck dismissed that solution while arguing for the waiver. “If that plant is let to go to three inches and then is brought down to a playing height, which I am trying to maintain, you have a risk of injuring that plant, and the general health of that plant because you will be cutting the leaf tissue off and exposing the growing medium of that plant,” TenEyck told the committee.

Cheverus appealed the committee’s decision following the meeting. But, at 10:17 a.m. Thursday, Moon informed Cheverus that Geraghty had reviewed and approved the request on behalf of the city manager, overruling the previous decision by the committee. At 11:03 a.m., the school’s athletic director, Amy Ashely, emailed Moon saying only: “On behalf of Cheverus High School, after further consideration, we have decided to withdraw our appeal.”

Cheverus officials did not directly respond to a request for an interview and did not explain in a written statement why they chose to withdraw their appeal or how they now plan to address the pest problem. A statement from the school’s president said that “as a Jesuit high school, we are committed to the safety of our students and accompanying young men and women in the creation of a hope-filled world, as well as to care for our common home.”

Cheverus’ waiver application was met by protest from some locals – Kamila credits these voices with the school’s decision to rescind the appeal.

“My guess is that they are responding to the outcry from residents and neighbors,” Kamila said.

“I am baffled as to why a school, especially a Catholic school, would want to use a chemical like this on a field used by children,” Portland resident Jen Rosenthal wrote to Cheverus. “I wonder if the parents with children at your school are aware of your plans? I known if my three kids (they are not HS age yet) were enrolled there I would be very upset.”

Kamila also hypothesized that the school may have responded to her argument that the pope had reduced the use of pesticides.  “You can’t support pesticides, because they are designed to kill. I mean they have ‘-cide’ in the name, that’s Latin for ‘kill,’ so pesticides, just by very nature, are not a pro-life tool,” Kamila said.

A Facebook page for Portland Protectors, the anti-pesticide nonprofit that Kamila co-founded, became a lively forum in which those objecting to the waiver application aired their grievances. Several posts questioned the qualifications of both Moon and TenEyck, to the point where TenEyck shared his second application only with Moon for fear that Kamila would circulate the document prematurely.

“That’s the nature of social media – things can get nasty pretty quick and they can get personal pretty quick and that’s unfortunate that that’s happened,” Kamila said.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: