Portland officials have granted the first waiver to the city’s new pesticide ban to seasonal residents of a private island in Casco Bay who want to use a common but controversial chemical to combat invasive plants.

In granting the waiver, an official in City Manager Jon Jennings’ office overruled a committee that had denied the request from a group on Cushing Island for an exemption from the city’s highly restrictive pesticides ordinance. But rather than receive a seven-year waiver, the Cushings Island Conservation Corporation will have to re-apply annually before using Roundup on invasive plants that are displacing or smothering native vegetation on the small island.

“It’s not our preferred method, but it’s just the stuff that works and the last tool in our toolbox,” said John Spencer, president of the organization, which manages more than 150 acres on the island also known as Cushing’s Island.

This is the first year of a new city ordinance that bans the use of synthetic pesticides on lawns, gardens, landscaped areas, patios, sidewalks, driveways, parks and playing fields. Instead, homeowners and businesses are restricted to organic treatments to try to control weeds and insects in lawns and gardens.

Nestled between Cape Elizabeth and Peaks Island, Cushing Island features 47 homes that are all occupied seasonally with the exception of a year-round island manager. There is no public access to Cushing Island, which is privately owned but part of the city of Portland.

In their initial waiver application, residents on Cushing  said most areas of the more than 200-acre island “have been invaded” by a variety of invasive plants. The invaders include Asiatic bittersweet – an aggressive vine that can smother entire trees or areas – as well as bush honeysuckle, barberry and black swallowwort.

“These invasive plants have eliminated native understory plants (such as bayberry, viburnum, and sumac) in some areas and threaten the natives in other parts of the island,” the group wrote. “The bittersweet vines climb and eventually kill the native trees. In addition, invasive shrubs, especially barberry, are known to harbor ticks.”

The Portland Pesticides Management Advisory Committee’s waiver review committee rejected the request late last month after the two members split on the issue. Jennings then assigned Lena Geraghty, the director of innovation and performance management in his office, to review the Cushing Island group’s appeal of the decision.

The waiver committee member who opposed the request, Avery Yale Kamila, raised concerns about the group’s proposed use of Roundup — which is at the center of numerous lawsuits — and that they didn’t plan to hire a professional applicator to do the job.

“I’m disappointed in that decision because I think it undermines the ordinance and the waiver process,” Kamila, co-founder of the group Portland Protectors that fought for the pesticides ban, said Wednesday evening. “In the broader sense, there is also concern that permission has been given to use such a high-risk pesticide on an island within the city limits of Portland. So I think that sets a bad precedent.”

After years of trying to control the invasive plants by mowing, hand-removal and organic herbicides, the Cushings Island Conservation Corporation sought city permission to apply up to 32 ounces of the pesticide Roundup annually. The city’s pesticide ordinance would prohibit mass spraying of the chemicals even with a waiver, so the group plans to hand-apply the chemical to cut stems of the plants using brushes.

Spencer, the organization’s president, said their first choice was to use an organic herbicide, but those treatments only killed the leaves not the entire plant.

“When you cut these things down, they pop right back up again,” Spencer said. “And just spraying a defoliant is not enough.”

In the letter outlining her decision to grant the waiver, Geraghty wrote that the group’s planned use of Roundup was “minimal and constitutes the least toxic, most effective use of pesticides required to address the threat to the environment.”

A common pesticide available in many hardware stores, Roundup uses the active synthetic ingredient glyphosate to kill plants and prevent their regeneration. But the manufacturer of Roundup, Monsanto, and its corporate parent Bayer face lawsuits involving more than 13,000 plaintiffs across the country who say the week killer caused their cancer. And multiple juries have handed down massive verdicts against Bayer, including a $2 billion verdict that was recently reduced to $86.7 million.

Research also suggests that Roundup, which is one of the world’s most popular weedkillers, is harming bees, butterflies and other key insect species at a time when the numbers of many pollinators are falling precipitously.

Kamila, who writes the Press Herald’s vegan column, said she was pleased that Jennings’ office restricted the waiver to one year because she said there is no provision in Portland’s pesticide ordinance for multiyear waivers. Additionally, Kamila was glad that the waiver directs the group to post signs near treated areas prohibiting access and that the applicators follow all safety and disposal procedures.

That said, Kamila expects the Cushing Island decision “will only heighten the concern about the invasive species waiver” and could lead to additional requests. And she continued to insist that the group’s plan to use Roundup – even in limited quantities and through individual plan application – was “risky.”

“I’m concerned about their health, I’m concerned about the health of the soil out there on Cushings Island, the animal life … the water and the health of Casco Bay,” Kamila said.

The city has only received one other waiver request for the pesticide ordinance. That request from the Waynflete School sought to apply synthetic pesticides to two athletic fields and a baseball diamond at the school’s Fore River athletic complex.

The Pesticides Management Advisory Committee rejected Waynflete’s request in March, saying the school failed to demonstrate an emergency or threat to public health on fields that were not in use at the time and did not appear to have grubs.

Related Headlines


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.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.