03.19.16 Protect environmentalism: Stop amendments to the Pollinator Protection Act

This is a guest post by Michael Tabor, a Takoma Park community activist and farmer.

On March 9, 2016 the Maryland Senate passed SB 198 (known as the Pollinator Protection Act).  The bill will keep neonicotinoids (“neonics”) off retail shelves in Maryland and allow only pesticide applicators to use them.  And that’s it. The bill will not restrict the agricultural use of neonics, nor does it restrict the sale or use of pet products containing neonics or personal care products for lice and bedbugs. Will this bill really “save the bees” or is it nothing more than a political token? It would at the very least do no harm, as long is it isn’t tampered with. And that is the present problem.

Despite the exemption for agriculture, Senator Mac Middleton, (D-28, Charles County) inserted amendment language at the last minute that raises some red flags and could make an amended bill a victory for the pesticide industry, not for bees. This amendment (most likely proposed by the Farm Bureau and pesticide industry) reads:

The Department [Maryland Department of Agriculture] shall review the state’s pesticide laws and regulations and make recommendations for any changes necessary to ensure state laws and regulations are consistent with the US Environmental Protection Agency recommendations.

Why is this important? If state laws and regulations are to “be consistent” with the EPA, it means the state and local regulations will be preempted; in other words, jurisdictions, like Takoma Park and Montgomery County, which recently passed laws to restrict cosmetic lawn pesticides (and which the Farm Bureau and pesticide industry tried to defeat, despite the exemptions for agriculture in these laws, too), are in danger of being overturned. Furthermore, any future efforts by local jurisdictions to try to exceed the very weak EPA regulations on pesticides will also be fruitless. This could be a death knell for environmentalism in Maryland.

Fortunately, there were strong voices against this amendment on the House floor, led by Transportation & Environment Chair Kumar Barve (D-17, Rockville/Gaithersburg). Thanks to his efforts and keen understanding of the threat of preemption that this amendment poses, he managed yesterday to get the House committee to pass a “clean bill,” stripped of the amendment. But the story doesn’t end here.  The bill still has to go to a joint Senate-House committee, where there’s always the possibility that the amendment might get reintroduced.

There are larger stakes than just this bill. Maryland is just one of seven remaining states whose environmental laws have not been preempted by the pesticide industry. Maine is another of those seven, and towns like South Portland, ME, have been inspired to follow our county’s lead on restricting lawn pesticides. Citizens in the other 43 states are now powerless to fight for anything that would exceed weak federal laws. The failure of the EPA to date to restrict neonics, among other pesticides, is what makes the pollinator bill a necessity in the first place. The Middleton Amendment would negate the very raison d’être of the bill.

State Senator Jamie Raskin (D-20, Takoma Park/Silver Spring) has also weighed in: “I am determined to see that the pollinator legislation we pass in Annapolis will not preempt anything being done at the local level . . . I am working with local environmental advocates and Attorney General Brian Frosh . . . to make sure that state law protects what we have done locally.”

We need others like Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17) and Senator Craig Zucker (D-14, Laytonsville/Brookeville) also to stand up to the pesticide industry and offer support. I urge Maryland citizens to contact their legislators by Monday morning and tell them to stop all amendments to the Pollinator Protection Act. The bees will thank you for it.

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