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Proposed Montgomery County curbs on lawn pesticides face amendment

A controversial bill to restrict pesticide use on private lawns and public land in Montgomery County could be headed for significant changes before it goes before the County Council for a final vote, most likely in September.

Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), the bill’s sponsor, and council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the committee reviewing the measure, are at odds over its scope.

Berliner said Friday he is drafting an alternative version that drops the restrictions on pesticide use for lawns, county parks and athletic fields. It would instead establish a countywide goal of reducing pesticide use to a to-be-determined level by 2020. Pesticide use would be monitored through new reporting requirements for applicators working in the county.

As originally drafted by Leventhal, the measure bans certain "non-essential" or cosmetic pesticides that are not prohibited by state or federal authorities but contain chemicals considered proven or likely carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency and Canadian and European regulators. It would, for example, ban popular lawn treatments such as Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto's Roundup. The bill also would encourage the use of organic alternatives.

Proposed pesticide ban triggers suburban turf war in Montgomery

The proposal has led to fierce divisions in a county that prides itself on promoting healthy and environmentally sound living. Homeowner associations, chemical industry lobbyists, local lawn-care companies and sports groups call the county proposal an unwarranted intrusion into an area regulated by state and federal authorities. Concerned parents, environmental activists and public health experts point to research suggesting elevated cancer risks for children exposed to toxic pesticides.

Leventhal said opposition to the bill has only affirmed his belief that its current version is the right one.

“The pesticide industry will oppose any conversation, any proposal,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Berliner’s halfway measures are going to be treated any differently. These industries are very profitable.”

Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a trade association supported by pesticide makers, has been opposing Leventhal's bill behind the scenes.

Berliner, who chairs the council’s committee on transportation, energy and the environment, said his main concern is that the Leventhal bill, as written, goes too far too fast, especially on an issue where the science is not clear and the community is deeply divided.

“We have not prepared our people,” Berliner said, likening the bill to “going from zero to sixty in a nanosecond.”

Also of concern is an April opinion from the Maryland attorney general’s office that in the event of a legal challenge, the courts are likely to rule that the state, not the county, has the power to regulate pesticides.

Berliner said his bill would still ban use of pesticides on county rights of way and require county parks authorities to limit pesticides to “judicious use.”

“ ‘The least amount possible’ will be our mantra for all our parkland,” he said.

Instead of banning the use of pesticides, his bill would require that when residents hire lawn-care firms, they sign a document outlining the reported health risks. It also would require condominium and homeowner associations to vote on whether to use cosmetic pesticides.

If by 2020 these measures do not result in reduced pesticide use and if the scientific evidence of health risks becomes clearer, Berliner said, he would support the kind of ban that Leventhal favors.

Berliner’s committee has scheduled an information session on Leventhal’s bill for Monday morning.

That session is the latest in a series in which the committee has taken testimony about pesticide use from experts and stakeholders.

Leventhal said Berliner is “just treading water” — playing for time to complete his bill.

Berliner flatly denied that he is stalling. He said the schedule he worked out with Leventhal calls for the series of hearings and then a mid-September vote.