Gail Palmer works with POWR (Protect Our Water Resources) West, a non-profit organization in western Massachusetts dedicated to educating the public about the risks of pesticides and the availability of non-toxic alternatives. Because of the decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidating a Bush-era exemption (see pg. 1, “Supreme Court … “), aquatic pesticides must now be regulated un der the Clean Water Act, although the extent of the ruling’s practical impact is still unclear.
Why should we be concerned about pesticides?
Pesticides are, by definition, toxic to certain life forms, and their harmful effects often are not limited to the pests they are meant to kill. Too often people assume that pesticides are safe for humans and the environment when inadequate study has been done to prove this. For example, only last year did EPA start testing a long list of widely used pesticides to determine whether they are endocrine disruptors -chemicals that can cause adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune system effects.
Why do we depend on pesticides?
Chemical treatments are quick and can be cost-effective if one doesn’t factor in the costs to the environment and public health.
Are there alternative ways to eradicate nuisance weeds?
Yes; we are limited only by our creativity. Initially, we need to stop the cycle that leads to overgrowth: lawn fertilizer and leakage from septic systems drain straight into our waterways, propagating the weeds. Beyond this, benthic barriers, or “blankets” placed over infested areas, have been successful in blocking sunlight and thus killing the vegetation. Mechanical weed -pulling has also has been successful in some lakes.
The court’s decision gave EPA two years (until April 2011) to develop a permitting program for pesticide applicators. What should these permits include?
EPA should require analysis of alternatives to pesticides, including methods to prevent overgrowth. It should also consider requiring comprehensive watershed management plans. Here in Western Massachusetts, some communities have used such plans to identify nutrients from upstream agriculture and neighboring septic and drainage systems, and to analyze opportunities for breaking the overgrowth cycle by looking at the sources that support the growth of aquatic vegetation. Some communities use integrated management plans that include spot treatments of pesticides in conjunction with non-toxic alternatives. Such planning may be more complicated, but it is working here because it allows local communities to play a meaningful role in managing an issue that directly affects their well-being.
What effect will the Sixth Circuit’s ruling have?
Although it’s not a silver bullet, I’m hoping that the initial, perhaps psychological, effect will be to cause people to stop and think about the impacts of pesticides. But the ultimate impact will depend on the substance of EPA’s permitting process. Industry groups have been lobbying hard for “rubber-stamp” permits that make no real changes, and it is up to us to make sure that this doesn’t happen.