A three-member Montgomery County Council committee approved Thursday an amended version of a controversial pesticide bill that eliminates many of the original legislation’s significant elements.
The environment committee of council members Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen and Tom Hucker approved the amended version by a vote of 2-1 with Hucker voting against it.
The amended version, drafted by Berliner, who detailed it in a memo sent last week to his colleagues, eliminates a general ban on applying specific pesticides to private lawns and county-maintained athletic fields that was a main component of the original bill.
Instead, the amended bill calls for a ban on using pesticides on county lawns and playgrounds, at public and private childcare facilities, and in areas near stream valleys. It also mandates the creation of a public awareness campaign about the dangers of misusing pesticides and directs the county’s Department of Environment to set a goal of reducing non-essential pesticide use by 50 percent over the next three years.
Both versions of the bill would allow pesticides to be used for agricultural purposes and on golf courses.
The committee’s passage of the amended bill sets up a showdown when the full council takes up the bill Oct. 6. Over the next few weeks, it appears there will be significant jostling for the votes of council members who have not officially taken a stance on the proposed legislation: Nancy Navarro, Sidney Katz, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer.
“I think we can do better than this measure that the committee is reporting today,” said council President George Leventhal, who first proposed the general ban on pesticide use last year. “I’ll continue my efforts to get a stronger and better measure passed Oct. 6.”
He likened the debate over his bill to one the county had in the early 90s about proposed laws for recycling. He said that while his version of the bill may not be easily enforceable—it would still allow for the local sale of pesticides—people would adapt to it in the same way they adapted to recycling.
Leventhal said a ban is “the only way to bring about a real change in behavior.” He emphasized his belief that the current regulators of pesticides—the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment—do not adequately test or regulate pesticides that could present a public health concern based on recent scientific studies.
“It strikes me that although each of us has a right to care for our own lawns, none of us has the right to expose our neighbors to harm,” Leventhal said.
Berliner has said he pursued changes to Leventhal’s proposed bill after the state Office of the Attorney General issued a ruling saying any ban on pesticide use on private lawns would likely be invalidated by a court.
He said Thursday that his amended version would be the strongest measure to limit pesticide use in any major jurisdiction in America. So far, only the small towns of Takoma Park and Ogunquit, Maine, have passed measures to ban pesticide use.
Berliner argued that his version “builds awareness, builds trust and makes significant reductions in something that we should reduce.”
However, Leventhal was joined in support of his version of the bill by Hucker and council member Marc Elrich, who vowed to fight for the five votes necessary to pass the general ban. On Thursday, Elrich said the general ban amounts to a cosmetic issue and that public health concerns should outweigh a desire for green lawns.
Since the debate over the proposed legislation began, residents in public hearings have questioned whether a general ban represents government overreach, while lawn care companies have testified that such a ban is likely to negatively impact their businesses.
Lisa Feldt, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said Thursday that County Executive Ike Leggett is concerned about the potential legal issue of imposing a general pesticide ban for private lawns. She also said that identifying products that would be defined as “non-essential” pesticides would be a challenging task for the department—given that many pesticide products sold locally are made from a variety of ingredients, only one of which may be banned by the county.
Another challenging aspect of the proposed legislation would be creating a list of banned pesticides. Both versions of the bill would require the creation of a list, although the bans would apply to more public and private property if Leventhal’s version passes.
On Thursday, committee members discussed a proposal to create a banned list of pesticides classified as carcinogenic or possibly carcinogenic by the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Council members have been pursuing the creation of the county’s own list due to the lack of availability of a comprehensive list used by any other jurisdiction.
The county’s parks department has opposed a ban on its playing fields, with officials saying it will be difficult to maintain the fields—which are often rented out for private use—without pesticides.
Berliner’s amended bill requires the department to test organic maintenance methods to determine if a ban would be possible in the future. Leventhal said last week he may be willing to compromise on the playing field issue.