UPDATE – 4 p.m. – Montgomery County Council President George Leventhal is rising to the defense of his bill that aims to ban the use of some toxic pesticides in the county.
On Wednesday, he appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU along with Washington Post reporter Bill Turque to discuss the bill, which recently garnered local headlines.
Introduced in October, the bill didn’t generate much controversy until a piece written by Turque appeared on the front page of the Post on Sunday. The news story laid out the legislation as a possible encroachment on homeowners’ ideal of a green suburban lawn.
Residents who testified against the bill at two public hearings in January and February told council members the bill was stepping on their green fiefdoms. Lawn care company owners said jobs would be lost.
On Wednesday, Turque said he thinks the issue is important because lawns are a “personal signature” for homeowners and the debate centers on the government’s definition of what’s safe.
Currently, federal and state governments are responsible for regulating and testing pesticides, although local governments have the ability to impose additional restrictions.
In this instance, Leventhal said he believed he needed to introduce a bill that goes beyond federal and state regulations of lawn chemicals because he says those laws don’t go far enough in ensuring that the chemicals aren’t misused.
“The federal Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate these pesticides with rigor,” Leventhal said on the Kojo Nnamdi show Wednesday. “The federal government and especially Congress is dysfunctional.”
Leventhal said representatives in Congress are beholden to special interests and even federal workers at the EPA are subjected to political pressure that makes it difficult for the agency to enforce or create regulations that could harm money-making chemical companies.
“The EPA is afraid of its own shadow,” Leventhal said.
In an interview with Bethesda Beat following Wednesday’s radio show, Leventhal said the bill remains popular among local residents, but that a backlash is being mounted by the chemical industry.
“I think the chemical industry is putting a lot of money into propaganda,” Leventhal said. “The chemical industry is very worried that if this becomes law, other states, counties and cities will be inspired to follow and that will interfere with profits.”
Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), a pesticide industry advocacy group, has been mounting a campaign against the bill on its blog. A January post said the Montgomery legislation would “affect personal property rights by taking away EPA-approved products from professionals and homeowners, limiting their ability to maintain safe and healthy outdoor spaces.” Turque also said he was referring to some of RISE’s talking points after being pressed by Leventhal about where his information was coming from during the radio show. Turque later clarified he was being sarcastic about using the talking points.
RISE did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
On the Kojo Nnamdi show, Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, said pesticide overuse is a common problem that’s documented at length in poisoning reports by the EPA. She said individual homeowners often overuse pesticides, which can harm humans as well as pets and pollinating insects.
The EPA registers pesticides to ensure they’re safe to use as directed on a label, but it uses a standard that compares risks to benefits to determine whether a pesticide should be available for use. This means some pesticides can be highly toxic, but their use is deemed beneficial enough by the agency that they are allowed to be used.
These approved pesticides can become dangerous if overused by homeowners who don’t follow the instructions on the label, according to Sass. Sass told Bethesda Beat that she believes the Montgomery County bill has the potential to better educate residents so they take the risks associated with these chemicals more seriously.
“If county residents had confidence that the feds were doing an effective job of protecting us from toxic chemicals, then that would be sufficient,” Leventhal said. “Then there wouldn’t be this popular movement in favor of this bill.”
The bill does not propose a full-fledged ban against pesticide use. It does not ban the use of pesticides for farming purposes or on golf courses. It also doesn’t ban their sale at hardware stores or other retail outlets.
What the bill does require is the posting of a notice if a pesticide is used on a lawn or field; the creation of a list of non-essential pesticides that are classified by the EPA as likely to be carcinogenic to humans; the prohibition of the application of the non-essential pesticides to lawns and county property; and a public education campaign to help implement the restrictions.
Like the county’s recycling regulations or smoking bans, the bill, if it becomes law, wouldn’t be actively enforced, but rather county officials would rely on residents to adhere to the restrictions.
The pesticide legislation is the latest sponsored or supported by Leventhal that tackles social and environmental issues. The council has recently enacted bans against Styrofoam takeout containers, smoking e-cigarettes in public places and selling puppies raised in puppy mills. That last one garnered widespread support from residents who testified at a public hearing, but because no retail establishment under the jurisdiction of the county actually sells puppies from puppy mills, it was more of a symbolic move.
Leventhal’s support of the recent legislation led to the nickname “MoCo’s Dr. No,” which was coined in November in an editorial cartoon in the Montgomery Gazette picturing him as the James Bond villain. At the time, Leventhal embraced the nickname. He posted it on his Facebook page with the caption, “Love this cartoon in today’s Gazette! Hilarious!”
Leventhal said he still finds the name funny. He also pointed out that the other bills passed with overwhelming support. He said in the interview with Bethesda Beat that he expects the council will pass his pesticide bill.
“I’m counting, I’m taking the temperature,” Leventhal said. He believes the bill already has the support of five members and knows of only one member who is likely to vote against the bill.
The bill is expected to be evaluated in council committee work sessions later this month, while the full council is not expected to vote on it until at least June.
Editor’s Note: Washington Post reporter Bill Turque clarified Thursday afternoon that he was joking about referring to RISE’s talking points when pressed by Leventhal about where his information was coming from. We’ve updated the story to reflect this.