Cuomo proposing controversial shift in pesticide tracking

03/05/2014 8:00 AM |
Talmage Farm Agway worker Rachel Harrison-Smith with a customer last week in Riverhead. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Talmage Agway worker Rachel Harrison-Smith with a customer in Riverhead. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Water quality advocates are up in arms over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to roll back a 1996 law that requires commercial users of pesticides to report information to the state. Instead, the governor is looking to “streamline” pesticide tracking by keeping tabs on sales.

Advocates statewide are saying the existing law should be strengthened, not revoked.

The Pesticide Reporting Law, which was spearheaded by Assemblyman Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), requires pesticide applicators such as landscapers and exterminators, to report to the state Department of Environmental Conservation each year, outlining exactly when, where and the type of pesticides they had used. It also requires large distributors who sell restricted pesticides to private users, such as farmers, to report similar information.

Mr. Cuomo wants to restructure that reporting system — requiring all retailers that sell pesticides, right down to the nearby hardware corner, to report their sales from major distributors — with the aim of getting an even better understanding of pesticide use within the state, according to an executive budget proposal.

The proposal, according to Mr. Cuomo’s office, would have the added benefit of tracking residential use, not just commercial.

But in a letter to state legislators, signed by representatives from 40 different environmental and heath advocacy groups, including Group for the East End, the North Fork Environmental Council, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, the advocates called the change “grossly inadequate and represents a significant step back in the right-to-know principle that people expect.”

The 1996 law, championed in part by Long Island breast cancer advocacy groups, was meant to provide transparency in chemical use on Long Island — so researchers could better understand how pesticides might impact human illness, according to the letter signed by advocacy groups.

The information on chemical uses collected under the law was then compiled by the state DEC, and released publicly in an annual report — providing the public, researchers, and health professionals with information on chemicals being used within their communities, according to past reports.

Richard Amper, the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens, an environmental advocacy group, said the potential move would take away the public’s ability to see exactly where chemicals are being used, during a time when researchers are still trying to better understand such pesticides’ affects on water quality.

“You would not want to lose those information on those specific sites and uses,” Mr. Amper said.

But the last annual report was completed in 2005, according to the state DEC website, which also noted that there were “concerns regarding the quality of the data received from the regulated community.”

DEC officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Environmentalists say a strengthened law, improving the quality of the information applicators must report, would provide data not just for health studies, but also for agricultural, ecological, water and air quality research — which often goes on to be used in creating public policy at local, state, and national levels.

While large distributors may be used to reporting such information — since they have to do so under the current law — for smaller retailers, it could mean added paperwork and overhead, said Bill Van Schaick, manager of Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead.

“The burden is just being shifted from users in the industry to the retailers who provide them with their products,” he said. “I understand the point behind it, we want pesticides to be used responsibly and we all want to protect the environment — but they are putting all that burden on us.”

Mr. Van Schaick said depending on what retailers will be required to report, it could ultimately mean a reduction in the number of options a store could offer to its customers.

“We may look to cut down the number of items we offer,” he said. “It may be easier to track 300 items, rather than 1,000 items.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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