Montgomery County officials would like to see the county’s nearly 300 athletic fields exempt from a proposed ban of “non-essential” lawn care pesticides.
At a County Council public hearing on the legislation Thursday night, Montgomery Parks Director Mike Riley said the department has already cut back on pesticide use and last year created a green management coordinator job to focus on more reductions.
But Riley said banning the use of pesticides would hurt the county’s frequently-used 290 fields.
“We would expect declines in field quality and turf cover, higher maintenance costs, frequent field closures for renovation and decreased support in revenue,” Riley said.
Kathleen Boucher, acting director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said County Executive Isiah Leggett supports exempting playing fields — just as the bill already proposes exempting golf courses, gardens and agriculture.
The bill, introduced by Council President George Leventhal, is largely based on a similar law enacted in 2013 in the City of Takoma Park, where Leventhal lives.
It would classify more than 100 pesticides and weed-killers as “non-essential,” including some products cleared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency but banned in Ontario, Canada and on a list from the European Commission.
Leventhal and bill advocates argue there’s enough evidence to link glyphosate-based weed-killers like Roundup to child health issues, chemical endocrine disruptors to badly damaged aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay and prevalent neonicotinoid-based insecticides to the death of bee, butterfly and other insect populations.
“We do not sacrifice beautiful lawns when we prohibit chemicals restricted in the bill,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the D.C.-based Beyond Pesticides group supporting the bill. “We simply need to educate and train those who manage lawns on the methods that build soil health and cultural practices instead of training them on applying poisons.”
But Thursday’s public hearing included a number of turf and pest management professionals who claimed the science doesn’t back up advocates’ claims. Many said pesticide applicators already licensed by the state are using only the amount of pesticides necessary to keep lawns and playing fields green.
“I don’t want the county to take away my right to use legal pesticides,” said Stuart Cohen, an environmental chemist and president of a Wheaton-based turf management company.
Cohen said the bill fails to acknowledge the extensive studies of pesticide products by the EPA and that the study used as the impetus for the Ontario law has been discredited. Bill proponents pointed to gaps in the EPA’s testing criteria and timing as reasons why the county should go above and beyond federal pesticide rules.
“People don’t have background in this,” said Brian Schoonmaker, vice president of Bethesda-based Capitol Pest. “[Pesticides] act like paint. They do not easily wash away in rain or break down in the sun. When was the last time you rubbed your hands on a wall and were able to get dry paint off of them?”
Almost 40 people testified in what turned into a standing-room only hearing room. The Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Environment Committee has agreed to hold a second public hearing on Feb. 12, with at least two committee worksessions scheduled for March.
Committee Chair Roger Berliner promised members of Council “are going to be quite deliberative” with the bill and invite in national experts.
In a memo to Council colleagues before introducing the bill in October, Leventhal wrote “this issue is among the most technically complex which the Council has ever faced.”
He has support from at least four co-sponsors: Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, Nancy Navarro and Hans Riemer.
“I think there’s a lot of emotion, particularly that I heard this evening on both sides of the argument,” said Paul Wolfe, the owner of a Rockville plant company who testified against the bill. “The hope is that better heads will prevail. Unfortunately, I think there are several councilmembers who have already made up in their minds and that’s a shame.”
On Monday, Leventhal indicated he’d be against exempting Montgomery Parks playing fields from the bill.
“There are safe and healthy methods of reducing weeds and reducing problems that would make playing fields operable without the use of toxic chemicals,” Leventhal said.
At least three speakers on Thursday testified to the advantages of organic turf and lawn care without the use of any pesticides.
Chip Osborne, who runs an organic turf management company in Massachusetts, said playing fields in his town are doing fine without the use of Roundup or synthetic fertilizers.
“I’m proud of how they look and how they play,” Osborne said.
Zack Kline, who started his A.I.R. Lawn Care company in the Bethesda Green business incubator, said he tells customers up front “that they have to be comfortable having a little clover in their yard,” because he doesn’t use Roundup or insect-killing neonictonoids.
But Riley said an organic approach wouldn’t work for Montgomery Parks, which manages more than 30,000 acres of land.
“There’s a thought that organic turf management is an alternative that negates the use of pesticides on athletic fields, but we conclude it would have very limited potential on high-use athletic fields in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Riley said.
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