AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard arguments Thursday from organic farmers and environmental groups that want new rules to help residents protect themselves from exposure to potentially toxic pesticides.
But other representatives from Maine’s agriculture community warned that those proposals on aerial application of pesticides and mandatory notification procedures could overburden farmers.
In many ways, the debate before the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee was identical to the dialogue with the state’s Board of Pesticides Control for more than two years now.
A group of concerned residents, organic farmers and environmental organizations wants tougher laws on how close pesticide applicators may get to homes, schools and roads when using planes or helicopters to apply the chemicals. The pesticides board recently completed work on new rules regulating pesticide “drift” and applications near sensitive areas, but speakers said Thursday that the proposals do not go far enough.
Speakers also criticized the board for backing down from a proposal that would have required farmers to take the first step in letting neighbors know about their notification rights before pesticides were sprayed in their area.
“We all get a black mark when a farmer sprays and a neighbor didn’t know about it,” said JoAnn Myers, who grows organic produce and livestock at Beau Chemin Preservation Farm in Waldoboro.
But Cary Nash, owner of Nash Farms Wild Blueberries in Appleton, said he and other farmers already spend a good deal of time calling neighbors who want advance notice.
Nash said requiring him to pre-emptively contact all neighbors within a quarter-mile of each of the plots of land he manages, as proposed in one bill, would be too much.
“I can’t even guess how many hundreds of phone calls I would have to make within a season,” he said.
The committee members essentially have two sets of bills before them. The first set would approve the draft rules adopted by the pesticides board dealing with aerial spraying within 1,000 feet of “sensitive areas likely to be occupied,” such as homes and schools, as well as strengthening the rules against pesticide drift. The board’s draft rules also create a registry of people who want to be notified of nearby spraying.
The second set of bills would go a step further. One bill, LD 182, would prohibit aerial spraying within 300 feet of buildings likely to be occupied and within 25 feet of public roads. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, has since asked the committee to kill the bill because of the board’s proposal.
Another bill, LD 1293, would create the same notification registry but also would require farmers to notify neighbors directly if they plan to apply pesticides that season using either aircraft or large, fanlike dispersal mechanisms.
Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Voters Education Fund, said the notification bill is one of the top priorities of the 26 organizations in the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition.
“The least a landowner can do is let his neighbors know of his spraying plans,” Drouin said. “This bill sets up a much-needed, clear and comprehensive notification system.”
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association also supports the expanded notification system.
Henry Jennings, the pesticide board’s director, acknowledged that many people are unaware of their notification rights. But he said the board members were convinced after public hearings last year that requiring farmers to notify neighbors would be an unreasonable burden, especially on operations with numerous, scattered fields.
Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, went further to predict the notification requirements could become a “truly unbearable burden” for small farmers.
But Nancy Oden, a Down East resident who has campaigned against pesticide use in blueberry barrens for several decades, said the existing rules are not followed. She also accused the pesticides board of being too close to the agriculture industry to do its job.
“Notification doesn’t work,” Oden said. “Regulation doesn’t work in Washington County … We have anarchy there. People spray wherever they want.”
The committee will conduct a work session on the bills in the coming weeks.