BANGOR, Maine — State regulators struggled Friday to find a way to allow aerial spraying of pesticides on farmland while strengthening rules designed to protect the public from being exposed to the potentially toxic chemicals.
Several homeowners and representatives of Maine’s organic farming community urged the Board of Pesticides Control to move forward with a proposal that, in many cases, would prohibit aerial application of pesticides within 200 feet of homes, buildings and public roads.
The proposed rules, which are still under development, also would rewrite the state’s requirements for when growers must notify neighbors about planned use of pesticides.
“Maximizing profit … should not be allowed to take over the health and well-being of not only residents of this state but also visitors,” Deborah Aldridge, owner of the organic berry farm Hatch Knoll Farm in Jonesboro, told board members during a public hearing.
But numerous growers of blueberries and other crops countered that the existing notification rules have worked well in recent years. The opponents forecast that requiring a buffer between sprayed fields and so-called “sensitive areas,” especially public roads, would harm many smaller farmers.
“The 200-foot buffer would eliminate most of my blueberry fields,” said Molly Sholes, proprietor of Spruce Mountain Blueberries in West Rockport.
The controversy in Maine over aerial spraying of pesticides dates back several decades.
The state passed the first rules intended to address concerns over exposure to pesticide “drift” in the mid-1980s. Those rules have been tweaked several times, and new notification procedures were added.
But this is the first substantial rewrite of the rules undertaken by the Board of Pesticides Control.
Board members on Friday repeatedly pressed speakers for ideas on how to resolve some of the long-running sticking points, such as setting an acceptable level of pesticide drift, but often received few concrete suggestions.
While opponents accused the board of basing the draft rules on emotion and fear rather than science, supporters countered that pesticide users lack definitive evidence showing that exposure to pesticide drift is not harmful.
Under the proposed rules, a 200-foot buffer would not be needed if neighbors do not object to spraying.
The proposed rules also would:
ä Require farm operations to prepare maps of sensitive areas within 500 feet of the targeted site as well as pre-application site plans whenever spraying within 1,000 feet of sensitive areas.
ä Require growers or applicators to check annually whether people living or working within 1,000 feet of a targeted area want to be notified before spraying.
ä Require growers to post signs at public places, such as a picnic area or near trails, at least 24 hours before application.
Charles Corliss, recreational trails coordinator for the state Department of Conservation, estimated that one-quarter of the 800 miles of trails in Washington and Hancock counties are in blueberry fields. Corliss said he and others fear the rules could lead to the closure of many public-access trails on private farmland.
A representative for one of Maine’s largest blueberry growers, Jasper Wyman & Son, said trail closures were a distinct possibility. Darin Hammond, the company’s senior manager for farm operations, also questioned the legality of the proposed buffer.
“Imposing a 200-foot buffer along the public roads, in my opinion, may be a violation of Maine’s Right to Farm law,” Hammond said.
Others said the proposed notification rules would be most problematic for larger agricultural operations with many neighbors — such as those in Aroostook County — especially when weather forces last-minute changes in pesticide applications.
Supporters of the draft rules disagreed that the current regulations and notification procedures are working well, however.
Speakers told stories of people being doused with pesticides while driving down public roads and of people or animals becoming ill when the chemicals drifted into their homes or yards. Others said growers don’t always follow existing notification rules, even when neighbors ask to be told in advance about spraying.
Heather Spalding, associate director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said that while the proposed rules are not perfect, her organization believes progress is being made. She urged the board to follow California’s lead and require a 700-foot buffer between fields being sprayed and sensitive areas.
Spalding also said organic farmers deserve more protections than proposed because they stand to lose so much when their fields are contaminated by pesticides drifting from nearby farms.
Public comments will be accepted on the proposed rules through Dec. 10. Written comments should be sent to Henry Jennings, director, Board of Pesticides Control, 28 State House Station, Augusta 04333-0028.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.