A referendum proposal that, if passed by the voters, would ban aerial spraying and the introduction of pesticides into wells and waters in Maine is moving ahead as its originator, Nancy Oden, circulates petitions to have it placed on the 1998 ballot. The proposal also requires state or local agencies that receive an application for an exemption or variance from a law or rule regulating pesticides to notify the public about the application and to hold a public hearing in the municipality affected by the application. “People could vote to have poisons rained down upon them,” says Oden.
The proposal was challenged by the Maine Farm Bureau Association last fall, which said that the wording to be on the ballot – “Should spraying pesticides from the air or putting pesticides in Maine’s waters be a Class A crime?” – did not explain the subject sufficiently. Maine’s Superior Court and its Supreme Judicial Court upheld the wording. Oden called the lawsuit against the wording “frivolous…. It was strictly a harassing and delaying tactic on the part of the Farm Bureau.”
Oden now has to collect 52,000 valid signatures to get the petition on the ’98 ballot; she hopes to get 60,000 to ensure the validity of enough signatures. She started collecting the signatures in April and must deliver them to the state by next January.
Among the pesticides applied aerially in Maine are Guthion, an extremely toxic insecticide that is used on blueberries, potatoes and other crops; herbicides in industrial forests; and fungicides, herbicides an insecticides on potatoes and apples. In addition, says Oden, the state sprays its forest lands; power companies spray under their power lines; the Department of Transportation gets regulatory variances for some of its pesticide applications every year; and railroads get many variances.
Among the pesticides that occur in Maine waters, Velpar (hexazinone), an herbicide applied to blueberry lands, is notoriously widespread. Guthion, said Oden, is found in wastewater treatment sludge from a blueberry processing plant, according to files of the Department of Environmental Protection. For the most part, though, “we don’t even know what’s in the water here. Maine is underlain by cracked bedrock. There’s no way to control these things once they get down [into the water]. A lot of them don’t break down” because of the acidic, cold, dark environment in Maine soils.
When asked about spraying in public health emergencies, as Rhode Island did when it sprayed to control mosquitoes that spread encephalitis last year, Oden said that “if we’re going to spray…some ghastly organochlorine, such as aldrin or dieldrin, we’re better off going into the house at night and encouraging bats and making sure not to have still sources of water around the home and to wear protective clothing. These poisons also kill the animals that eat the mosquitoes. There’s no excuse for spraying,” although she added that a variance to the law – if the referendum passes – is possible.
When asked about the choice between using the genetically engineered, Bt toxin-containing NewLeaf potato versus aerially applying the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis to control potato beetles, Oden said that spraying “would make more sense if it were necessary, but even Bt is not benign. It can harm bee grubs if it’s taken back to the hive.” She said that other methods for controlling potato beetles are available.
The referendum “in large measure is for education,” says Oden. “It raises the level of consciousness. It will show that we care. It’s a way to legally participate within a system to get a little control over what goes into our air and water.”
She is looking for help gathering signatures, “even if people just get a few,” and with distributing fact sheets. “This is something people can do rather than wallow in helplessness,” she says. “This is a positive thing you can do to help stop poisoning our air and water and to help give us back some power.”
Oden will be at the WERU Full Circle Fair in July and hopes to be at the Common Ground Country Fair in September. (Participants in Common Ground had not all been chosen as we went to press.) Anyone who wants to help circulate petitions can write to Nancy Oden at CLEAN Maine (Citizens for a Liveable Environment in Alliance with Nature), P.O. Box 186, Jonesboro, ME 04648; or call or fax 434-6228; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.