Farm bill hurts ability of communities to protect health, environment of citizens

As city mayors, we are deeply troubled that Congress is considering taking away our right to home rule. In House and Senate negotiations last week, legislators considered Section 9101 of the federal Farm Bill that would rescind the right of our communities and their elected officials to restrict hazardous pesticides.

During the past two years, our neighboring cities passed landmark legislation to restrict pesticides, require organic land care and protect public health. We believe federal preemption of our authority is undemocratic and contrary to our country’s founding principles. Our legislation was passed after extensive public hearings and in-depth research into the adverse effects of pesticides and the availability of non-toxic alternatives. 

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Through our deliberations with community stakeholders and experts, we learned from the independent scientific literature that pesticides can harm people and are linked to a range of diseases from cancer to neurological disorders, immune and reproductive effects to respiratory impacts and learning disabilities. We learned that children are at elevated risk from exposure to normal daily use and that the chemicals end up in our waterways, while putting the health of pets and wildlife, including fisheries and pollinators, at significant risk. Most importantly, our research found that we could successfully maintain our parks, playing fields and private lawns without the use of high-risk pesticides.  

We are not the only municipalities that have considered the evidence and opted for higher standards than those set by the federal government. Thirty communities in Maine have restricted pesticide use within their borders, while across the country at least 155 local ordinances regulate the use of pesticides in parks and playgrounds, according to Beyond Pesticides. Dozens of communities have put organic land management practices into place or have eliminated specific pesticides that have attracted national and international attention due to scientific findings or, most recently, a jury verdict of $289 million because of harm caused to a groundskeeper by an herbicide.

The pesticide lobby has long sought to preempt local authority through the federal pesticide law. When an amendment similar to the one under consideration in the Farm Bill was introduced in Congress in the 1980s, it was rejected. After that, the industry brought its argument to the courts, resulting in a 1991 Supreme Court decision that rejected the industry position and affirmed the rights of local governments to adopt more restrictive pesticide standards than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While states have the right to restrict their local political subdivisions, the federal government does not and should not have the ability to tell our communities that we cannot offer our citizens greater public health protection.

As elected officials, we strongly oppose congressional interference in our mandate to protect our communities’ health and environment. Here on the rocky coast of Maine, we live in a complex and fragile ecosystem that we strive to protect. We do not want the federal government to roll back our high standards and replace them with laws favorable to chemical corporations. We urge that Section 9101 of the House Bill not be included in the final Farm Bill.

Ethan Strimling is mayor of Portland, Maine and Linda C. Cohen is mayor of South Portland, Maine, whose cities have passed landmark ordinances that prohibit toxic pesticides in land management in their communities.