Pesticide

Migrant workers pouring pesticide at Jarmoc Farms in Somers. Right now, Connecticut has no way to determine how much pesticide is being used in the state annually. (Marc-Yves Regis I / Hartford Courant / December 17, 2013)

Sitting in dusty file cabinets at Connecticut's environmental agency are tens of thousands of reports by licensed landscapers, lawn-care professionals and farmers about how much pesticide they are putting down each year.

No one is reading them. No one has ever read them or totaled the numbers since the reporting law was first passed in the 1980s. Which means no one has any idea how much pesticide is actually being used in this state on lawns, school grounds, in parks and on agricultural land.

"No one's adding the figures up," says Dr. Jerome Silbert, executive director of the Watershed Partnership. "There's no way to know what the trends are."

It's a rather peculiar situation when you consider that pesticide is such a hot-button issue in Connecticut, one likely to see another round of legislative warfare in 2014.

Another curious thing about this impotent statute (state officials say they've never had the staff or money to actually look at the reports) is that no one apparently wants to or even thinks it's possible to repeal the law.

"It's useless," admits state Sen. Ed Meyer, a Guilford Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature's Environment Committee. "The reason why it's not been repealed is that those of us who support the environment are every year hoping to put the funds in to properly staff this agency."

"I don't think it will ever be repealed," agrees Erica Fearn. "Pesticides are such a hot topic."

Fearn is executive director of the Connecticut Environmental Council.

The CEC isn't, as you might expect from its name, a bunch of tree-hugging, anti-pesticide left-wingers. It's actually an association of more than 160 professional lawn-care types, landscapers, groundskeepers, municipal park officials and farm groups that are in favor of what they argue is the proper and safe use of pesticides.

You'd think a business-oriented organization like that would be gung-ho for repealing a law that does nothing for anyone except create more paperwork. But that doesn't seem to be the case here.

Fearn says the pesticide-reporting law is like a lot of other state environmental rules and regulations that aren't really being enforced because the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) doesn't have adequate staff. She insists keeping those records is a good thing, even if no one uses them.

"I think it's a good law," says Mike Wallace, a CEC board member and manager of Simsbury's municipal golf course. "The fact that they don't have anybody there to [read the reports] isn't our fault... If the citizens of Connecticut don't fund their environmental agency, well then, shame on the citizens of Connecticut."

Meyer puts it in even harsher terms: "State government could be indicted, in my opinion, for failing to properly fund its environmental agency."

The lack of hard information about pesticides in this state (that reporting law doesn't even address the use of lawn chemicals by do-it-yourself homeowners) has in no way inhibited the often heated arguments surrounding the issue.

The CEC has repeatedly sought repeal of a state law that in 2010 banned any pesticides on school grounds used by kids in kindergarten through 8th grade. Meyer says that law was passed because there was an "abundant amount of evidence that pesticides are toxic to children of that age."

Landscapers and groundskeepers insist they need those federally approved pesticides to kill grubs and other stuff they say is ruining lawns and playing fields. Anti-pesticide types call those claims a bunch of, well, cow manure would be the nice translation.

"In Connecticut, there are three things certain in this life," says Martin Mador, a spokesman for this state's Sierra Club chapter: "Death, taxes, and that the pesticide applicators will be trying to remove that K-8 ban."

The CEC and its allies tried and failed to win repeal in the 2013 General Assembly. Mador and a collection of other (traditional tree-hugging) environmentalists tried and failed to extend the ban to public high schools and all public parks.

Meyer says lawmakers on both sides of the pesticide fence agreed to pull back and get some independent advice on how toxic these disputed pesticides are for humans of school age. The state has hired a Harvard toxicologist for $75,000 to report back next month to both the DEEP and the General Assembly.

Another environmental concern likely to come up in the 2014 legislature is the possible effect of pesticides on crop "pollinators" like honey bees and butterflies, says Meyer.