Cape Elizabeth could be the next Maine town to ban pesticides, following a string of other municipalities in the state. The council there considered a petition in favor of a residential pesticide use ordinance on March 1.
A proposed ordinance could be slated for a referendum vote, which the Cape Elizabeth town council will schedule on March 13. That could line it up for the June election, when the town also weighs the proposed annual budget.
Richard Nick Bryant, a primary drafter of the petition, told Cape Elizabeth councilors on Feb. 13 that he hoped they would pass the ordinance on their own rather than leave it up to the public vote. Either way, he hopes it can go into effect in time for summer.
“As a pesticide-use issue, this is a seasonal matter,” Bryant said. “If it goes out for a November vote, it means its effectiveness won’t be felt until the year after in the summertime.”
Maine is one of six states that allows municipalities to enact their own pesticide laws to regulate pesticide use on top of statewide standards. Cape Elizabeth and Hallowell follow 29 other municipalities in Maine that have already done so, including Ogunquit and Portland and South Portland.
The Cape Elizabeth petition was assembled by the environmental group Organic Cape, who gathered 1,049 signatures in favor of the ordinance for the coastal town. If passed, it would restrict the use of toxic pesticides for cosmetic landscape purposes and outdoor pest management, aiming to keep harmful materials away from people and nearby waters. Organic Cape declined an interview request, but said they plan to launch a website sometime this month.
Even further along in the process, Hallowell has its own ordinance progressing, with a public hearing scheduled for March 13. The Hallowell Conservation Commission, a municipal board, has been working with the citizen action group Grow Green & Healthy Hallowell toward the effort for more than two years. The commission has been in contact with city staff in Portland, South Portland, Blue Hill and Ogunquit, where ordinances have already been approved, according to their minutes.
“A lot of us just grew up with synthetic pesticides, that was just an accepted way of life,” said Molly Jennings, a member of Grow Green & Healthy Hallowell. “Over years it’s required an about face, coming to terms with science, which is the bedrock of this effort.”
One reason the Hallowell group is pushing for stricter regulations, according to Jennings, is that just because a pesticide is registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.
The EPA’s regulation of pesticides is considered lax by some in the field, according to an article from the Brookings Institution. A January study from the National Cancer Institute found that people exposed to the chemical Glyphosate, commonly found in the pesticide “Round Up,” showed early markers of cancer. Glyphosate is still not officially banned by the EPA, and has been applied in Portland as recently as August of last year.
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The power that municipalities have to make their own pesticide regulations has been met with opposition from some state officials. In 2018, then-Gov. Paul LePage unsuccessfully proposed a bill that would’ve revoked that right from Maine’s municipalities.
Portland’s ordinance, passed in 2018, has been seen as an example for other Maine municipalities looking to restrict pesticide use. The measure banned synthetic pesticides except for special circumstances, like treatment of invasive species like the browntail moth. The city also banned synthetic fertilizers in September 2022.
But the policy has been hard to enforce, and its effectiveness hard to measure. The city’s ability to address violations is dependent on citizens’ or applicators’ reports, since it doesn’t have the resources to actively investigate pesticide use, Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon told the Phoenix in October 2022. The city acted on a violation of the ordinance back in August, issuing the first fine in its history.
With tighter restrictions going into effect on March 19 to include synthetic fertilizers in addition to pesticides, the committee will have ongoing work ahead to inform applicators and Portland residents.
The ordinance requires that applicators report pesticides used in Portland last year to the Sustainability department by Feb. 1. The city received 44 reports in 2021, and has received 40 for 2022. Among the applicators that reported in 2021, the Sustainability department found full reporting compliance for 2022.
It remains unlikely that every violation can be found in the applicator reports, since it’s difficult for the Sustainability department to know how many reports they should be receiving.
For example, a disclaimer in the 2022 Landcare Management Advisory Committee annual report reads: “It is important to note that we do not know how many pest management and landscaping companies operate in Portland so we do not know how many firms are required to submit reports.”
An example from the LMAC’s 2021 annual report found that Waltham Pest Services, a company which applied 121 distinct pesticides in Portland, didn’t file reports in the previous two years. According to the report, “the only reason,” they submitted a report was because it was pointed out via the city’s SeeClickFix app by a citizen who noticed a violation.
The Sustainability department received 12 pesticide-related complaints from residents in 2022.
The LMAC has had its ups and downs. Last month, former chair Karen Snyder was rejected from her bid for another term as chair. Snyder, who has clashed with Moon and other members of the committee, has protested the decision, writing an email to the city accusing staff of coordinating with state officials to undermine the ordinance’s application in Portland.
A city spokesperson declined to comment on Snyder’s claims, saying that discussion about Snyder’s reapplication was confidential because it was discussed by the city’s legislative and nominating committee in executive session.