The mayors of Portland and South Portland are urging Congress to reject a provision in a wide-ranging farm bill that would nullify local anti-pesticide ordinances adopted in recent years.

In a joint opinion piece published Wednesday by The Hill, a news website focusing on national politics, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen urged federal lawmakers to kill a provision of the farm bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make regulating pesticides the purview of the federal government.

“As elected officials, we strongly oppose congressional interference in our mandate to protect our communities’ health and environment,” the mayors wrote. “Here on the rocky coast of Maine, we live in a complex and fragile ecosystem that we strive to protect. We do not want the federal government to roll back our high standards and replace them with laws favorable to chemical corporations.”

The House and the Senate have passed different versions of the bill, which is now being reconciled by the Congressional Conference Committee. National environmental advocacy groups have said the pesticide industry spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and won significant concessions in the House bill, which passed by only a two-vote margin in June.

CropLife America, a group that represents the pesticide industry, listed the pesticide provision as one of its priorities in the legislation and applauded the House bill when it passed.

Chris Novak, CropLife America’s president and CEO, told Environmental Health News this month that the federal government conducts rigorous reviews of pesticide safety and shouldn’t be overruled by local governments. “Localities lack the staff resources and scientific expertise to conduct these reviews,” he said.

In their opinion piece, the local mayors said each community reviewed scientific information and heard from experts that pesticides have been linked to cancer and learning disabilities, among other health problems.

South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

“While states have the right to restrict their local political subdivisions, the federal government does not and should not have the ability to tell our communities that we cannot offer our citizens greater public health protection,” the mayors wrote.

Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, spoke out on the House floor this summer against the pesticide provision as well as other parts of the House bill, saying it weakens environmental protections, among other things. Pingree has continued to urge passage of the Senate version, which would not undo local pesticide rules.

To date, at least 155 communities across the country, including 30 municipalities in Maine, have enacted local pesticide restrictions, according to the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides.

Anti-pesticide advocates have described the rules adopted by Portland and South Portland as two of the most restrictive, far-reaching and environmentally progressive anti-pesticide ordinances in the country.

In the fall of 2016, South Portland passed an ordinance that focused primarily on education over enforcement. Portland followed suit in January, but its ordinance allows fines of between $100 and $500 for scofflaws.

With few exceptions, both ordinances prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides and place a strong emphasis on public education and organic lawn care techniques. Only pesticides allowed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and classified as “minimum risk” by the Environmental Protection Agency are allowed, although waivers may be granted for public health, safety and environmental threats.

Both communities are phasing in their ordinances. South Portland’s ordinance already applies to public and private properties, but won’t apply to the South Portland Municipal Golf Course and the privately owned Sable Oaks Golf Club until May 1.

Portland’s ordinance currently covers city properties, excluding high-use athletic fields and golf courses. It will extend to private properties on Jan. 1 and cover high-use athletic fields in 2021.

On Monday night, Portland city councilors voted unanimously to approve a resolution opposing the federal pre-emption of local pesticide ordinances.

The resolution authorizes Strimling and Councilor Spencer Thibodeau to send a letter outlining the city’s position to Maine’s congressional delegation and ranking members of the Congressional Conference Committee, which is reconciling the House and Senate bills. Thibodeau leads the council committee that drafted the city’s pesticide ordinance.

So far, 60 local officials in 39 communities from 15 states have signed a letter opposing the change drafted by Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

The federal threat to local restrictions on pesticide use comes after Gov. Paul LePage failed in a state-level attempt to pre-empt local authority regarding pesticides.

LePage floated a bill in 2017 that also was advanced in state houses across the country by a business-backed organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The bill was drafted by one of ALEC’s task forces with pesticide industry members such as CropLife America, Dow AgroSciences and the American Chemistry Council. LePage tried again in March, but it was shot down by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.

In their opinion column, the mayors of Portland and South Portland noted that a similar proposal by the pesticide industry was rejected by Congress in the 1980s, and that the pesticide industry also tried to strike down local regulations in court but lost a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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