Health-protective pesticide legislation topped Connecticut environmentalists’ wish list for the current legislative session until Environment Committee co-chairman Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, struck a surprising deal with industry.

In return for a pledge from the pesticide lobby not to roll back existing pesticide laws, Roy single-handedly promised that the Environment Committee would not raise any new pesticide bills this year.

Environment Committee co-chairman Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, was blindsided when Roy announced the deal with the pesticide lobby.

“I was not a party to any agreement to stop any pesticide legislation in 2011,” said Meyer. “I have expressed concern that he did this unilaterally.”

Environmentalists cheered in 2007 when the legislature passed a law prohibiting application of lawn-care pesticides to the grounds of public or private schools with students in eighth grade or below. The law was expanded in 2010 to ban pesticides on athletic fields. The Connecticut law was the first in the country to prohibit pesticides on grammar school athletic fields.

Pressure from industry to repeal the ban has been intense. Since the law took effect last July, the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association (CRPA), the Connecticut Parks Association (CPA) and the pesticide industry trade association, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), have lobbied hard to roll back the law. 

“The agreement was that we would not attempt to expand the ban if they would not attempt to repeal the law,” said Roy, who admits that he held no public hearings before cutting the deal. “I made the agreement with the lead pesticide lobbyist to take a year off on pesticides because passage of the law banning pesticides on school grounds was so contentious.”

“I think Representative Roy made a deal with the pesticide interests because he thought he was protecting the pesticide ban,” said Dr. Jerry Silbert, executive director of the Watershed Partnership. “We’re concerned that he didn’t let the people who would like to be his allies know that he was making the deal.”

This year, a coalition of environmental groups and garden clubs had expected the Environment Committee to raise a bill that would roll back the state’s 1983 preemption law, which prohibits cities and towns from passing pesticide legislation stricter than state law. Environmentalists had hoped to amend the law to allow towns to choose their own pesticide methods.

Members of the coalition argue that because pesticides can contaminate the groundwater in places where people depend on wells for their drinking water, cities and towns should be able to use organic lawn-care methods.

“I introduced a bill in January to end lawn-care pesticide preemption and permit towns to have stricter lawn-care pesticide regulations,” says Meyer. “The bill is dead. We were discussing the raising of the bill when Richard Roy announced that he had reached a deal with the pesticide lobby. I’m not happy, but I’m not going to challenge it. This is the first time that I’ve seen a legislator seek to bind a committee in this way. I think it has prevented some towns from taking health and safety precautions for young children and pets in town parks and recreation areas.”

Roy argues that last year several legislators wanted to extend the use of integrated pest management (IPM) programs that permit the use of certain pesticides on school grounds. The original legislation allowed modified programs to be used on school grounds for three years while transitioning over to organic methods.

“We have to be vigilant to fight efforts to by the pesticide industry to repeal the ban and substitute IPM every year,” said Margaret Miner, executive director of Rivers Alliance of Connecticut. “The determination of the pesticide industry to sell its products in the largest possible quantity is disturbing. In practice, there is no standard for IPM so anyone can say they’re doing IPM while using lawn-care pesticides.”

“The environmentalists didn’t like IPM,” said Roy. “The pro-pesticide people didn’t like the ban.”

Some lawmakers would still like to overturn the ban and substitute Integrated Pest Management programs for school grounds and playing fields. “If you use an IPM program, you’re probably putting chemicals on the ground,” says Roy. “Children are at risk for coming into contact with those chemicals. If you adhere to the ban, children are not going to come into contact with chemicals. It’s that simple. I feel what we’re doing is protecting the most vulnerable of our children.”

“IPM permits the use of quite toxic pesticides,” adds Dr. Silbert. “It’s a rather weak and toothless regulation compared to a ban. The reason environmentalists now want to remove the lawn-care preemption law is so that towns can have stricter control over lawn-care pesticide uses in their towns to protect their aquifers and drinking water.”

Each year, Americans apply more than 80 million pounds of weed-killers, insecticides and other chemicals to their lawns and gardens. Lawn-care pesticides can filter down through the soil to pollute groundwater and residential wells. Pesticides used solely on lawns are not required to undergo the same rigorous testing for long-term health effects as those used on food. No federal studies have assessed the safety of lawn-care chemicals sold in combination, as most are.

“More than 90 percent of pesticides and inert ingredients are never tested for their effects on developing nervous systems,” says Yale Professor John Wargo, Ph.D., lead author of a research report from EHHI, Risks from Lawn-Care Pesticides. “Children are more affected by exposure to such chemicals because they are smaller and their organs are not mature.”

“We were disappointed not to have an opportunity to talk about municipal preemption in a public forum,” says Sandy Breslin, governmental affairs director for Audubon Connecticut in Southbury. “There is growing awareness and support for reducing use of lawn-care chemicals to protect the health of children, pets and wildlife. We hope there will be an opportunity to talk about the issue freely and openly in the next legislative session.”

Environmentalists were disheartened by Roy’s single-handed agreement not to allow any pesticide bills to come before the Environment Committee. Before the agreement was made, 28 environmental organizations had already signaled their interest in working on eliminating the lawn-care pesticide preemption law this year.

“There was reason to think it might take more than this frantic session to roll back pesticide preemption,” said Miner.  “It’s outrageous that Connecticut uses so many pounds of pesticides and herbicides where there is no particular need. Towns should be allowed to determine what quantities of pesticides are being dumped onto their lawns and waterways.”