South Portland city councilors embrace pesticide ban

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Protect South Portland has set its sights on a new goal: eliminate the use of pesticides.

City Council chambers were filled to maximum capacity by members of the grassroots group and others Monday night, many of whom spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. 

After three presentations on the dangers of using and being exposed to pesticides, and the availability of viable, organic alternatives, each councilor and every resident who spoke agreed that the use of chemicals and public and private property needs to be curtailed. 

“The perfect lawn is not our goal. Our goal is the perfect life. It’s about living well,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides , a national coalition against the use of pesticides, was among those who presented information to the council.

“A lot of the adverse effects we suffer from today are clearly linked to pesticide exposure, among other things,” Feldman said. “This is a critical issue in today’s world.

“We believe you, as legislators, can adopt for this community incentives through law that will ensure that organic systems are put in place at the same time that you meet community expectations,” he said.

Chip Osborne, of Osborne Organics in Marblehead, Massachusetts, also spoke. “The bottom line is, whether we all agree, the fact is that there are proven issues with some of these products and we have viable alternatives now that will work,” he said.

Homeowners use “80 million pounds of toxic pesticides each year in pursuit of the perfect lawn,” Osborne said.

Transitioning from inorganic fertilizers and weed killers isn’t just about changing one’s habit, Osborne said, it’s about changing the approach entirely. 

“It’s a system-based approach versus a product-based approach. It’s conceptually different. (Using organic methods) is problem solving, not symptom treating,” he said. “We’re taking a feed-the-soil approach as opposed to feed the plant.”

Mary Cerullo, associate director of Friends of Casco Bay, said the effects aren’t just seen on land, but in the water. 

“About 10 years ago, we started thinking, what’s the possible impact of pesticides and herbicides on Casco Bay?” Cerullo told the council. 

From 2001-2009, Friends of Casco Bay sampled storm-water runoff for pesticides as it flowed into Casco Bay. Their findings showed 13 coastal runoffs in southern Maine with detectable levels of pesticide.

In the public comment portion of the workshop, Rick Towle, director of parks, recreation and waterfront for the city, said that while South Portland “complies with all federal, state and local guidelines, those may or may not be enough.”

The city does not have a formal, integrated pest management program in place, Towle said, “but that doesn’t mean that the city doesn’t use best practices or follow those guidelines.”

In many ways, the city has been aware of this threat for a while, and other, very expensive precautions have been taken along the way, Councilor Claude Morgan said. 

“Because the eyes of the world may be upon us, there’s a certain kind of sexiness to this work, but I think it’s also very important to remember that South Portland has been leading the way in the drudgery work for two decades,” Morgan said. “We have been consistently digging up our grounds and completing our combined system overflow system.”

This ongoing project, Morgan said, “is all about preventing flow from getting into our bay.”

Adopting an ordinance that would curb the use of pesticides in the city would be a “very simple” effort that the city can make, “which really costs us nothing and it’s just a continuation of the slog work that we’ve been doing for decades,” he said. 

All councilors expressed a desire to see an ordinance tailored to South Portland’s needs proposed in a timely manner. 

“If not now, when? What more do we need to move in the right direction?,” Councilor Patti Smith said. 

“I’m ready to move forward as quick as we can do it,” said Morgan, who requested that city staff draft an ordinance to be examined by the council at a July workshop.

Resident Meg Braley, of Beech Street, said it feels like “we’re riding a wave, and it’s a very exciting wave to be on. It’s a wave of the future. I love that we are considering this and educating ourselves.”

Protect South Portland formed in 2013 to promote a citizen-initiated referendum that would have banned the flow of tar sands from Canada to South Portland through a pipeline operated by Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Although that effort narrowly failed, the City Council eventually adopted a “Clear Skies Ordinance” backed by the group that prohibits the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto ships in the city.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.