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Amid Virus Crisis, MD Governor Vetoes Bill Banning Brain-Damaging Pesticide

Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed 38 bills passed in March by the Democratic-majority General Assembly. The governor explained that the economic crash caused by the coronavirus had opened up a massive state budget deficit which made the new proposals– including for increased funding for public schools – suddenly unaffordable.

However, at least one of the bills Hogan vetoed had absolutely nothing to do with state funds or the coronavirus.

That was Senate Bill 300, which would have outlawed the use of a pesticide called chlorpyrifos that researchers have concluded can cause brain damage in children and kill aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.

Farmers spray thousands of pounds of chlorpyrifos every year to kill insects that damage corn, fruit trees, and cotton crops.

EPA banned the indoor use of the pesticide in 2000, but the Trump Administration in 2017 decided against expanding that protection to farms and other outdoor locations.

Dr. Clarence Lam is a public health policy expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a Democratic state senator from Howard County who co-sponsored Maryland’s state ban on the insecticide.

“I was disappointed by the veto, because I think this is important legislation to help protect our children and those who are growing up in our state from these kinds of neurological disorders,” said Lam. “I think the science is very clear that this chemical is harmful.”

The Hogan Administration declined to be interviewed. But the governor signed a letter with the veto that said the law was unnecessary, because the administration imposed regulations in April that will effectively prohibit the chemical’s use by the end of 2021.

The governor’s letter said in part: “Following discussions earlier this year with agricultural leaders, farmers and legislators, the Maryland Department of Agriculture crafted reasonable and responsible regulations to phase out all use of chlorpyrifos.”

Ruth Berlin is Executive Director of the Maryland Pesticide Network.  She said that Hogan’s substitution of weaker regulations for a stronger law banning the pesticide was, in essence, a political trick. It’s a way of replacing permanent legal action with temporary rules that the governor can alter or weaken at any time. Hogan’s regulations will be administered by a state agency, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, or MDA, that has a mission to promote the agricultural industry, not public health. Over the last quarter century, MDA has opposed every single bill designed to limit or control the use of pesticides, Berlin said.

“The truth is, the governor’s veto, puts the MDA – which is the fox guarding the hen house,” Berlin said.  “So we know that this will turn into pretty much nothing of use because they have a dismal record. Truly.” 

A spokesman for MDA, Jason Schellhardt, did not dispute Berlin’s statement that his agency has opposed all state legislation to control the use of pesticides. But he said in an email: “The department typically would not support legislation that takes regulatory authority away from the science-based review process established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the national standard on pesticide regulations.”

Berlin said the chlorpyrifos ban issue will resurface again in the next General Assembly session. “We are going to push for a veto override, and we feel optimistic about those chances,” she said.

The chlorpyrifos ban legislation passed the Maryland Senate by a vote of 31 to 14; and the House 94 to 37. Both were above the two-thirds majority that would allow a veto override when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

So…. what’s behind all this maneuvering?

Much of this is about the politics of regulation. It’s also about power of the farm lobby, which – like the modern Republican party -- strongly opposes all laws and rules that might hurt the profits of industry – in this case, farmers or chemical manufacturers.

This profit concern was aired by – among others -- Riley Titus, chief lobbyist for a pesticide industry lobbying group called Crop Life America.

“Eliminating this product would remove an invaluable tool for farmers and cause future threats to food security here in the state,” Titus said while testifying against Maryland’s ban on Chlorpyrifos. “The cost to commodity producers would be impactful.”

There is no question that farmers and golf course owners could earn more money if they could spray whatever chemicals they wanted. But it is important to remember there are costs on the other side of the ledger, too: the secret and incalculable costs of lowered IQ’s and neurological damage in children whose mothers are exposed to this pesticide by simply strolling through an orchard or eating the wrong fruit while they are pregnant.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.