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House Farm Bill Could Wipe Out Communities’ Power to Prohibit Pesticides

Blocking cities from regulating pesticides should be beyond the scope of even such a sweeping bill.

As lawmakers convene on Capitol Hill to finalize the latest federal Farm Bill, environmental advocates warn that a House proposal could put public health at risk by rolling back restrictions on pesticides in 155 communities nationwide.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) this week released its analysis of data from the nonprofit group Beyond Pesticides, including an interactive map of local policies that it says could be scuttled if the House measure passes. Those regulations vary widely — some communities restrict neonicotinoid use to protect pollinators, while others map out pesticide-free buffer zones or require that public notice be posted when pesticides are applied on public or private property.

According to EWG’s analysis, 58 of those communities have adopted more comprehensive policies that prohibit the use of glyphosate, the widely used weed killer under increasing scrutiny for its human health impacts. Last month a California jury ordered chemical maker Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who blamed the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup and Ranger Pro herbicides for his terminal cancer. Monsanto, which Bayer recently acquired, now faces some 8,000 glyphosate-related lawsuits in the U.S.

The analysis arrives as work begins for the conference committee charged with sorting out differences between House and Senate versions of the new Farm Bill — the informal name for a vast legislative package renewed about every five years — before September 30, when the current bill expires.

“We’re just trying to bring as much attention to this issue as we can while Congress is deciding what’s going to be in the final Farm Bill package,” Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for EWG, told EHN. “It was included in the House bill, and I think we have to treat everything in either the House or the Senate bill as something that could be part of the final package.”

The Farm Bill includes a broad array of programs covering nutrition assistance, crop insurance, habitat conservation and other priorities. But blocking cities from regulating pesticides is beyond the scope of even such a sweeping bill, Benesh contends. “I don’t think the Farm Bill is supposed to dictate what local governments can and cannot do,” she said.

EHN requested comment on the measure from the office of Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, and from a spokesperson for the committee, but did not receive a response.

The National League of Cities and the National Association of Regional Councils sent a joint letter to lawmakers last month urging them to reject the measure. Likewise, 107 House members sent a letter to agriculture committee leaders that included it in a list of “anti-environment provisions” that had them “deeply concerned.” Other groups, including the Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, also have stated their opposition.

The measure would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act to say specifically that “a political subdivision of a State” may not regulate the sale or use of pesticides.

“The US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Pesticide Programs regulates and registers all pesticides after years of diligent and thorough testing,” Chris Novak, CropLife America President and CEO, told EHN in a statement. “These decisions are based on extensive scientific data to establish that these products are safe to human health and the environment when used properly. Localities lack the staff resources and scientific expertise to conduct these reviews.”

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1991, however, that local governments have the authority to regulate pesticides under the federal law. That ruling did not take away states’ rights to preempt those local regulations, however, and 43 states have since passed laws that do so.

Those laws have generally been interpreted to mean that local governments can’t control pesticide use on private land, but can do so on parks, playgrounds and other public property, Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, told EHN.

But the new Farm Bill provision could be used not only to block private-land regulations in the seven states that give local governments authority over pesticides, but also to roll back all local regulations, including on public property, and prevent the other 43 states from giving cities or counties greater authority in the future, Feldman said.

“It’s uncertain as to how broadly this could be interpreted in terms of restricting the ability of local governments to adopt ordinances pertaining to pesticide restrictions,” he said. “We’re in a tough spot here because whenever you amend a law like this without any specificity or knowledge about what the implications are, which would typically be gained through a hearing process, you really leave it open to broad interpretation.”

Among those keeping an eye on the House measure is Ethan Strimling, mayor of Portland, Maine, which early this year adopted one of the country’s strictest pesticide policies. “It’s really kind of an unregulated world out there and people are able to use pesticides at their will,” Strimling told EHN. “We were very concerned about the environmental impacts.”

The proposal to preempt local regulations is a “terrible idea,” Strimling said. “I hope they allow communities to come up with the policies that work best for the communities.”

And if they don’t? “We would look at whatever options we have to push back on that,” he said.

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