The people who wrote an ordinance banning the aerial spraying of pesticides in western Oregon last year aren’t professional environmental advocates. Their group, Lincoln County Community Rights, has no letterhead, business cards, or paid staff. Its handful of core members includes the owner of a small business that installs solar panels, a semi-retired Spanish translator, an organic farmer who raises llamas, and a self-described caretaker and Navajo-trained weaver.
And yet this decidedly homespun group of part-time, volunteer, novice activists managed a rare feat: They didn’t just stop the spraying of pesticides that had been released from airplanes and helicopters in this rural county for decades. They also scared the hell out of the companies that make them, according to internal documents from CropLife America, the national pesticide trade group. Although some of the world’s biggest companies poured money into a stealth campaign to stop the ordinance, and even though the Lincoln activists had no experience running political campaigns, the locals still won.
The Lincoln County aerial spray ban, which passed in May 2017, is just one of 155 local measures that restrict pesticides. Communities around the country — including Dubuque, Iowa; Reno, Nevada; Spokane, Washington; and Santa Fe, New Mexico — have instituted protections that go beyond the basic limits set by federal law. Some are aimed at specific pesticides, such as glyphosate, others list a few; while still others ban the chemicals altogether. In the three decades after the first local pesticide restriction was passed in 1970 in Maine, the bans came in a slow trickle. These days, they are coming in a flood, with towns and counties passing more of these measures in the past six years than they did in the 40 before that, according to data from the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides.
The uptick in local legislation is a testament to public concerns about the chemicals used in gardening, farming, and timber production, and reflect a growing frustration with federal inaction. In recent years, scientific research on pesticides has shown credible links between pesticides and cancer, endocrine disruption, respiratory illnesses and miscarriage, and children’s health problems, including neurobehavioral and motor deficits. As scientists have been documenting these chemicals’ harms, juries have also increasingly been recognizing them.
But federal regulation has lagged behind both the research and public outrage. Notably, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, to remain in use despite considerable evidence linking it to cancer. Under Donald Trump, the EPA also reversed a planned ban of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to neurodevelopmental problems in children. Frustrated by the lack of federal action, many people have turned to their towns and counties, only to find that they have been hamstrung by state laws forbidding local limits on pesticides.
In 43 states, laws prevent cities, towns, and counties from passing restrictions on pesticide use on private land that go beyond federal law. A provision in the Farm Bill now before Congress would extend that restriction to the entire country and could potentially roll back existing local laws. The House version of the bill that passed in June and is now being reconciled with the Senate version included a section that prevents “a political subdivision of a State” from regulating pesticides.
The measure is one of several “anti-environmental provisions” in the bill “that threaten public health,” according to a letter from 107 House members. The Republican-backed attempt to clamp down on local governments also flies in the face of the party’s rhetoric, according to Scott Faber, vice president of governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
“Hypocrisy is not a strong enough word for Republicans working to block local public health ordinances designed to protect children,” said Faber. “It’s a party that more or less exists to empower local government to make decisions.”
While the industry is hoping to tighten its already fierce grip on localities through federal law, it’s also waging a stealth campaign against local “brushfires,” as CropLife America refers to the local attempts to restrict and ban pesticides. In Lincoln County and elsewhere, the national trade group is quietly putting its vast resources into fighting local activists through opposition research, monitoring their social media, and trying to stop opposition to pesticides from spreading to other communities.