SCARBOROUGH – After more than a year of bouncing it around at the ordinance committee level, the Scarborough Town Council enacted a policy at its most recent meeting to ban the use of certain pesticides on town property.
The vote fell 4-1, with Councilor Richard Sullivan opposed. Chairwoman Judith Roy and Councilor Ron Ahlquist were absent from the Sept. 19 meeting.
The drive to ban synthetic pesticides actually began several years ago when local environmentalist Eddie Woodin approached Councilor Karen D’Andrea with fears that chemicals in pesticides could travel from weeds to worms and insects, which could eventually kill birds and bats. Then, last year, local resident Marla Zando approached D’Andrea with concerns about the effects of pesticide use on her son.
With that, D’Andrea leaped into action.
“We know it causes problems,” she said, at the time. “We need to find ways to stop using it and relying on it.”
According to the policy, written largely by D’Andrea and Councilor Carol Rancourt, “Scarborough recognizes that the use of pesticides may have a profound effect upon indigenous plants, surface water and groundwater, as well as unintended effects upon people, birds and other animals in the vicinity of the treated areas.”
Despite that seeming alarm, the brakes were applied early on in the process, when local landscapers and pesticide applicators got wind of the proposal. The problem, many noted, is that so-called organic pesticides, which treat the soil rather than the weed, can be just as toxic as their synthetic cousins. And more expensive.
“We have a contractor who does all of the town grounds,” explained Town Manager Tom Hall recently. “We asked him to provide an estimate to use only organic pesticides, and there was a 28 percent increase in costs. It’s not that the organic products are more expensive. You just need more of them.”
To date, only a handful of Maine towns have banned the use of synthetic pesticides, the most local being Brunswick and Ogunquit. Unlike those towns, however, Scarborough will stop short of a full-blown ordinance, settling instead for a policy, because the council action applies only to town-owned property.
The policy requires the use of organic products for bug- and weed-control, outlining a list of “allowable products.” Also on the thou-shalt list is the use of both signs and the town website to advise what products have been placed, and where. It also creates a standing Pest Management Advisory Committee, whose job it is to put in place the synthetics-free program, although the town manager is given the authority to override its mandates as he sees fit.
Sullivan joined a handful of landscapers and small-business owners to oppose the policy.
“Scientists say that if label rules are followed correctly, synthetic pesticides are safe,” he said. “Pesticides have never been found in Scarborough’s water supply.”
However, most who rose to speak were staunchly in favor of the new rules, among them representatives from Citizens for a Green Scarborough, the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust and Toxics Action Maine.
“These chemicals may not affect everyone, but it’s the vulnerable people we’re interested in protecting,” said Woodin, adding that the same warning labels referenced by Sullivan say the products are unsafe for children.
“Everything everyone is saying tonight is interesting, but it’s pretty alarmist,” said resident Harry White. “If I listened to it, I’d think we were all going to die pretty quick.”
White pointed out that the federal Environmental Protection Agency allows most synthetic pesticides, while Sullivan fretted over the unanticipated costs of the new policy might to local taxpayers.
Still, Councilor Mike Wood, acting as meeting chairman, predicted that Sullivan will find himself on the wrong side of the history books.
“In the not so distant future, this will be the norm,” he said. “I think we’ll look back and kind of laugh at ourselves for the conversation we’ve had.”
Hall acknowledged during the issue’s year-long shuttle through the ordinance committee that, although the policy is somewhat weakened from D’Andrea’s original intent, its passage does open the door to an eventual town-wide ban.
Appointments to the Pest Management Advisory Committee will be made by the Council’s Appointments Committee. It is to include:
• A representative from the school department, “preferably the director facilities.”
• A representative from the Community Services Parks & Recreation Advisory Board.
• A representative from the Scarborough Garden Club.
• Two representatives “knowledgeable about organic methods to pest control,” at least one of whom must be a member of the Conservation Commission.
• An arborist or horticulturist, and
• Two citizen representatives.