Former Members of Board of Pesticides Control Express Frustration with Status Quo
by Sharon Tisher
Two long-standing members of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC), both "public" representatives, retired this year. The MOF&G interviewed them about their thoughts in retrospect about their service.
Jo D. Saffeir, of Pownall, had served on the Board for six years. She is an environmental consultant who works as Secretariat for the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and staffs the Forest Legacy Committee of the Department of Conservation.
What do you see as the major accomplishments of the BPC during your tenure? What stands out for me are a couple of precedent setting decisions that the Board made: denying request for registration of [genetically engineered] Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] corn, and the Critical Pesticide Control Area [for the chemically sensitive Brown family of Hope]. I see them as important because they were precedent setting on a national and not just a state level. They caused people to look at the fundamental issues of pesticide use in Maine. Many people didn’t look at Bt corn as a pesticide issue, but I think after the deliberations they began to see it as a pesticide issue…I was troubled by fairly regular reports that we made the decision simply on grounds of [lack of demonstrated] need. That was reported fairly regularly in press and even the BPC newsletter. Some Board members voted against the applications because they didn’t think there was an adequate need demonstrated, but that was not the sole concern I had, nor I suspect others as well. There was also the question of whether this was environmentally sound and whether it was generally a smart thing to do for the state.
The Critical Pesticide Control Area was important because it forced people to look at impacts of pesticides not just on the state as a whole or the environment as a whole but really on the individual. It was a perfect example of that. It forced people to look at how pesticides impact each and every one of us.
Were there any major disappointments during your tenure? That question relates a lot to the  Act to Minimize Reliance on Pesticides. I don’t think we did take any concrete steps to fulfill the Act. I wasn’t involved in the data compilation part of that, but I did feel in chairing the Policy Committee [a committee established in 2000 and on-going to advise the Board on how to fulfill the policy mandate to "minimize reliance on pesticides"] that I was very frustrated. I was surprised at the various industry perspectives that because so much had already been done, there wasn’t a lot more that needed to be done. I was frustrated that most industries wanted to point the finger at homeowners. There’s no question that a lot needs to be done to educate homeowners about pesticides, but there’s also no question that there’s room for more innovation in the industries. In lawn care, for example, to me it is not enough to say we’ll do what our clients want us to do. If a client wants a lawn that is perfectly green and has no weeds, I feel lawn care companies have an ethical responsibility to refuse to provide that, because it’s not an environmentally responsible approach. Industries could be coming up with innovative ways to not only help their bottom line but also be environmentally responsible. One of [MOFGA’s] recommendations for a "chem-free green" recognition program for lawn care providers who offer no pesticide service programs makes a lot of sense. My major frustration was major industries’ unwillingness to acknowledge room for improvement.
Did you have any particular institutional frustrations about the way the Board was organized or operated? My biggest frustration was at the staff level. I feel the Board has an incredibly highly skilled staff, so skilled and so knowledgeable that I always wanted their opinions and it was difficult to get their opinions, because they felt it was important they remain nonpartisan. When as a Board member I’m looking for some practical advice about what setback makes sense, what windspeed is likely to cause drift and what isn’t, I’d like the staff to offer advice without feeling repercussions.
What kind of repercussions? I think they felt to maintain credibility they had to appear objective in virtually all situations. If there's a crazy situation, I don’t think it’s necessary for a staff member to remain "objective." It’s ok for them to call a spade a spade. I think the Board should encourage them to voice their knowledgeable opinions.
One more institutional frustration: Board independence versus Department of Agriculture oversight. I always felt it was very confusing as to whether we were truly an independent board that could express our own opinions without having to check in with the Department of Agriculture as to whether we were consistent with the Department. It was unclear whether the BPC had authority to act independently of the Department in public positions. As an example, there’s the Act to Minimize Reliance on Pesticides. The BPC did not issue any testimony on that proposal. I was advocating that we testify in favor of the Act. I believe at the time, because of the way [the original bill] was worded, the Department of Agriculture was coming out opposed. I was unclear about whether we could take a different position. Some issues are more germane specifically to the BPC than to the Department generally, and we should have the ability to take our own positions.
The Forest Ecology Network is circulating a referendum petition to have the Board members elected from each Maine county, rather than appointed by the Governor. What do you think of that proposal?
I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. You want people who are knowledgeable, but you are also potentially having regulated people on the Board. The problem is not the Board makeup; the problem is having people on the Board who are willing to be vocal.
What role would you like BPC to play in the emerging issue of West Nile Virus spraying? I don’t feel terribly knowledgeable about that. It was not an issue when I was on the Board, but I think there’s something we should be able to learn from the browntail moth spray program, evaluating that experience. The biggest challenge is trying to balance the individual landowner’s right not to be sprayed with the community’s right to address a public health issue. I was uncomfortable with language developed on the browntail moth spraying [referring to the Maine statute, 22 M.R.S.A. sec. 1444] that says if you’re a landowner who doesn’t want to be sprayed, you have to pay for removal of browntail moth around your neighbors. I understand the logic, but it’s saying you have the right but we’re going to put up such financial constraints that you don’t have the right. I’m not sure the browntail moth solution really did justice to the right not to be sprayed.
What are your reactions to the recently released survey on school pesticide use? What action do you think is appropriate for the BPC on this issue? I did read it. I remember it being pretty bad. It’s very alarming. I do think the Board is devoting a fair amount of energy to this issue. They’re definitely on the right track. Education needs to be stepped up, and once there’s adequate education, enforcement needs to be stepped up.
Do you think there should be a requirement of advance written notification to parents of pesticide applications in schools?
I’m not sure adding another regulation is the right solution. I don’t have a problem with it as a parent -- I’d like to know, so I’d personally be supportive, but is that going to solve the problem? I’m not sure. It’s critical that we figure out a way to make school officials aware of the regulations and follow them.
Do you think it’s enough of a solution if schools realize they can’t continue to apply pesticides with unlicensed staff, and turn the spraying over to contracted firms? Or do you think applying Integrated Pest Management practices should be mandated in schools? Definitely the latter. When regulating pesticides we need to look at risk factors. We need to look at children, elderly as being priority populations to protect. We should always be applying IPM principles in schools.
Did you ever feel the heat, such as by telephone calls at home, of interest groups on particular issues? I did not feel the heat on specific issues. I did feel something I thought was equally if not more insidious: the random phone calls from industry representatives "just checking in:" "How are you doing, how do you feel about this issue…" It wasn’t illegal because it wasn’t an issue we were then deliberating on. They were calls that were couched as "I like you, how are you doing," but really feeling you out to see if you’ll be a problem on an issue down the line. They were couched as friendly social calls, but I can assure you I won’t be receiving them now that I’m off.
Any other important questions I didn’t ask? One thing I’ve always been frustrated about is that MOFGA appears to be the only non-industry group tracking activities of the Board. The Board needs as broad a range of perspective as possible. When the audience of most meetings consisted exclusively of ag industry representatives or lawn care industry or structural pesticide industry reps and MOFGA, I felt it was not good. There’s a need for other environmental groups or public advocacy groups to get involved in activities of the Board, because only by having the Board tracked by a broad range of constituents are the activities of the Board going to reflect the interests of Mainers as a whole.
Alan J. Lewis, Ph.D., served on the Board for 12 years, served as Vice Chairman for eight years, and as Chairman for the last two years. He is a professor of ecology at the University of Maine at Machias.
What do you see as the major accomplishments of the Board during your tenure? Well, I sat in my rocking chair in front of the wood stove last night and I said ok, major accomplishments? I couldn’t come up with anything. That was why when [Commissioner of Agriculture] Bob Spear called me and asked me if I wanted to be re-appointed, I declined. … I don’t know why different people are on the Board, but I know I was on because I was really hopeful that I could be a significant player, a positive force in seeking alternatives to pesticide use in Maine. I just don’t think that I managed to make many accomplishments in that area.
I don’t think it’s any secret to you that there are many different world views on the Board. My fellow Board members were very kind in letting me express my opinions. I always had the sense there that I was tolerated more than anything else. I don’t say that in an unkindly fashion; I don’t want it to come across as bad feelings, it’s not that at all. As I sat down and really focused on trying to decide whether I wanted to continue, I realized that the Board is put together in a way that it is pretty much going to maintain the status quo. It will deal with the egregious violations that come along, keeps the major rules in place and the major players somewhat in line, but I don’t see it as an agent for change. There are some exceptions…I think that the education efforts by Paul Gregory that have been going on have probably had the greatest impact.
Do you have any particular institutional frustration about the way the Board is organized or operated? Where the Board’s housed in the Department of Agriculture, the structure is built up. The beginnings of my disenchantment had to do with GE corn when it came around the second time. [Monsanto’s 1998 application to approve field corn genetically engineered to incorporate the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterial toxin; the application came before the Board because the corn is considered a "plant-pesticide."] The law is that there has to be evidence of needs before we register a pesticide. Before that evidence was ever even presented, a representative of the then Commissioner of Agriculture stood up and gave a speech about how Maine farmers need to have that GE corn to compete. I told him he was out of line. That was followed up by the [University of Maine Cooperative] Extension Service presenting numbers purporting to support "need," but from a scientific perspective the numbers had no validity. …The Board turned that application down, but it seemed that the Department of Agriculture within which we were housed, and the Ag Extension Service, were really just there to perpetuate the status quo. Look, folks, why isn’t the Department and the Extension Service standing up and saying to companies, we really don’t need this?
Look at blueberries. We started off with 75 % of wells [tested in Washington and Hancock counties for the presence of hexazinone, a blueberry herbicide] testing positive; now it’s down to "only 45%." Gracious, we think that 45% is ok, we set that forth as some kind of a victory and an improvement! I chaired that committee on minimizing pesticides in groundwater; I argued in the committee that people were acting within their rights and should find ways to use hexazinone. I live in the heart of blueberry country and as I drive around every day I’m just absolutely dismayed at what’s happening around here in the name of blueberry production as it relates to hexazinone use. Former forest land and open fields are being bombarded by hexazinone. You drive through Washington and Hancock counties and see huge holes in barrens absolutely devoid of vegetation. We sit back and say that’s just normal use, we should have the right to do that.
And now on the heels of a bumper crop, blueberry growers want to increase their self-imposed tax; they feel they should get more "involved in social issues related to agriculture." That’s tied into the listing of the Atlantic sea run salmon. I’m a bit disgruntled when I see the way just this one pesticide is used. …I could see being on the Board there’s nothing I personally could do that could affect that agricultural practice, because the whole agriculture establishment is put together to support that practice.
…The thing that makes me shake my head is the attempt to portray farmers as saints, the salt of the earth. I wish that if nothing else we would get out of that kind of rhetoric, because there are some of the greatest sinners as well as the greatest saints in agriculture around here.
Did you know that [BPC staffer] Julie Chizmas has identified the organophosphate Phosmet (Imidan) [a blueberry insecticide] in two Downeast salmon run rivers?
Did she? Well, bless her heart. That was one of my frustrations. I was charged with chairing the environmental risk assessment committee. The original legislation in the early 1980s charged that we were supposed to ensure that pesticides were not used in a way that harm the environment. We got initial funding of $25,000, got it all burned up to have a contracting firm assess one pesticide. When I first got put on that committee, we met a couple of times, and the message was we just don’t have resources to do any more risk assessments. It died. A few years ago I raised it again and asked how we can ignore it, it was mandated by the legislature. When [the potential federal listing of Atlantic salmon as endangered] came up, I said again, how can we not do this. In a year and a half, we managed to meet two, maybe three, times. Basically we got nowhere and did nothing. …Here was a very important issue; we had that original report indicating that five of [the Salmon run] rivers were contaminated with measurable levels of hexazinone. …Hexazinone is an herbicide, and the basis of aquatic systems are phytoplasms. What impact does this herbicide have on the aquatic system?
We’ve got aerial photos. They’re applying pesticides aerially on the blueberry barrens right up to the rivers. Whenever you apply aerially, you have drift. I asked, how do we know that we don’t have things like Guthion and Imidan drifting into the river? "We haven’t found them." The fact we haven’t found them doesn’t mean they’re not in there.
There were a whole lot of things I thought we had to address. Now there was the governor’s [Salmon Conservation] Plan in lieu of listing, and it said right in there we were supposed to evaluate pesticides on Atlantic Salmon, and we had no resources to get there.
Do you think progress has been made in meeting the mandates of the 1997 Act to Minimize Reliance on Pesticides?
That Act, it was very well written, very well intended. It was supposed to have funding for a couple of [staff] positions. It was never clear to me how it happened, but we lost those resources, lost the positions. It was another mandate that we ended up not being able to do. It is one thing to have Board in place passing these rules and regulations. The public looks at us and thinks something is happening, but no one is funding it. It’s not getting done. I realized my presence, as an ecologist, on the Board was perhaps giving some people some ideas that in fact were not reality.
Do you think it’s time to go back to the legislature to mandate and fund more progress in pesticide reduction? I’ve looked at that and my feeling is what we need here is we need people in the legislature, after they’ve passed laws, to look to see whether their mandates are carried out, and if they’re not, starting holding some people and some organizations more accountable. The Board shouldn’t be asking for more money, the legislature should be looking at the Board and asking why haven’t you done that. The legislature isn’t holding the agencies, the Department of Agriculture and the Board of Pesticides Control, accountable. They come up with a variety of excuses and they get away with it.
What do you think of the citizen referendum proposal to enlarge the size of the Board, and have one member elected from each of the counties? My experience has been that with large groups, like 16 members, it’s like trying to steer a barge. I also think when you talk about elections, you’re going to have a mobilization of forces that are going to elect people that aren’t representative of the majority. If you elect a BPC representative from Washington County, they’re not going to elect me, they’re going to elect one of my blueberry grower neighbors who thinks I’m a green-eyed radical. I think instead the Board should be balanced with more activists, increased from seven to nine, with four public representatives. The law says the public representatives should have "demonstrated environmental" interests. We need more specific criteria for what constitutes that. We need real stringent criteria for environmental expertise.
What role would you like BPC to play in the emerging issue of West Nile Virus spraying? I hope that the Board can act as a moderating influence there to get the public to balance the risk to human health, to human safety, against the potential environmental impact. My fear is that the public is going to want to get as close to zero risk as possible, and to do that, have as wide and extensive spraying as possible. The Board’s influence is going to have to be the professional expert to do some real risk evaluation there, to make sure if they do in fact go ahead, it’s absolutely necessary because there’s a real risk to human health. We’re too often ready to assault the environment without a real necessary reason.
What are your reactions to the survey on pesticide use in Maine schools? What action do you think is appropriate for the BPC on this issue? That is really distressing. That is symptomatic of our society, that we don’t look at pesticides as being toxic compounds that require the greatest level of care in their use and application. A couple of years ago, we had a report that in one summer there were 50,000 applications of pesticides to lawns in the city of Portland alone. This is an extension of that mentality. If I were heading up the Department of Education, I think that’s where the involvement has to be. The BPC and the Department of Education should put together mandatory training programs to hit every school in this state.
Do you think the Board should require advance notice to parents of pesticide applications? If there was one theme that I found running through my philosophy as I served on the Board, it was that the general public has the maximum right to information. Quite often I sensed in discussions, "don’t give the public too much information, they might think there was some cause for alarm." My feeling is absolutely, if pesticides are going to be used in the schools, they should be used at a specific time and day in a prescribed manner, and the parents of students should know exactly what’s going on. There might be parents who decide they don’t want children in school the next day. Maybe they should apply only on Friday evenings so there’s a couple of days when students are not going to be there. We often pooh-pooh perceptions of risk by people, but you and I could sit down and come up with a long list of pesticides that we thought were safe when used in a prescribed manner, and we changed our minds. My feeling is we should give people as much information as needed to be in charge of their lives and their children’s lives.
As Chair, did you feel the heat on particularly controversial BPC decisions? I didn’t really "feel the heat" on specific issues, but I would occasionally get calls from members of the agricultural community. I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but they were a little bit whining at times, but not very often. There was just the message that you have to let farmers have the freedom to farm.
At the time you resigned, you indicated you had a commitment to environmentalism, and felt you were somewhat handicapped by your role on the Board. Can you explain? I was always very careful about what I said in terms of expression of my opinions about pesticides, because I didn’t want to be carrying on arguments on two fronts, on the Board, and then another parallel campaign in the newspapers. It wasn’t that anyone imposed any silence on me, simply things I imposed on myself.
Now, you’re actually the fourth newspaper that has interviewed me about my reflections on the Board. I spent half an hour to an hour talking to these other reporters. I spoke about pesticides regulation, the pesticides in the rivers, the governor’s [Salmon Conservation] plan. The other three mainline papers that I won’t mention haven’t published any report of my interview. I am speaking more openly and more frankly in relation to some of these issues than I felt I could on the Board. [Board staffer] Julie Chizmas came to speak to the Machias and East Machias Watershed Council [under the governor’s Salmon Conservation Plan] about the monitoring for pesticides in the rivers. I’m now serving on the Downeast Salmon Federation Board. I stood up and said if anyone believed that we knew anything about the potential impact of pesticides on salmon in these rivers, they probably also believed in Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.