High Court's Pesticide Ruling Bugs County Farmers

December 11, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Carroll farmers may find they'll be fighting more than just bugs when they spray pesticides on their crops.

They may end up burrowing through several new layers of regulations.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling will allow local governments to draw up their own pesticide rules, previously the domain of state and federal regulators.

And while none of Carroll's eight municipalities has any pesticide rules in the works, the state's farmers say the ideaof local pesticide laws is a nightmare in the making.

"The laws need to be universal," said Ralph Robertson, a 44-year-old third-generation farmer who tills 550 acres in Westminster and New Windsor. "I can see this getting real complicated if every place has its own set of rules."

Until the late April Supreme Court ruling, pesticide regulations were mostly in the hands of state and federal regulators.

The case involved a small northwestern Wisconsin town and a foresterwho in 1985 was denied a permit to apply pesticides to a 200-acre portion of his land.

A three-member board of supervisors in Casey devised a pesticide permit process in 1985. Ralph Mortier, a forester in the town of 411 people, was the first to apply for a permit under the process.

He was given partial approval but told to "hand-apply"pesticides on a 200-acre tract of land on which he grows trees.

Mortier went to court because the process "was complicated and unfair."

"They think they are justified to impose their own regulations because of their concern about the health and welfare of the town," Mortier said in a telephone interview from his home in Wisconsin. "Theycompletely destroyed my plans to manage my land in the way that I wanted to."

Town officials said they did have public safety on theirminds when they passed the ordinance.

"We don't fight the farmersor anybody else," said Mary Emerson, the town clerk in Casey. "We want to protect the water, the wells and people."

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the town's right to impose its own regulations; the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

By doing so, agricultural expertssaid, the door was opened for any locality to begin imposing regulations that are more strict than federal or state regulations.

"We're going to have some problems if local jurisdictions get into the act," said Norman Astle, an assistant public affairs director with the Maryland Farm Bureau. "It could be a regulatory nightmare."

Robertson, the Carroll farmer, spends about $25,000 a year on pesticides. Hehas a permit from the state, which, in turn, is issued in accordancewith U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

"If local jurisdictions can start making their own rules, it's going to become more costly," he said. "If they want to tighten regulations on a universal basis, I wouldn't have any problems with that. But the farmer is going to get more confused."

A University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service official said he knows of no efforts to impose local regulations in Carroll.

"While the jurisdictions could impose more restrictions, we don't expect there to be a change," said David L. Greene, an officer with the service's Carroll office.

In an attempt to keep Maryland's cities, towns and counties out of the pesticide-regulation business, the farm bureau and

other agricultural groups are considering lobbying the General Assembly to pass legislationthat would keep the system the way it is.

"One episode on a locallevel could lead to regulations that are inconsistent," said the farm bureau's Astle. "A local jurisdiction could put out an ordinance that is based on local emotion rather than on science."

That is the complaint Mortier had when Casey's part-time supervisors imposed their pesticide rules.

"These people are not qualified to make these decisions," Mortier said. "When you deal with one of those boards, you're dealing with people who don't know everything that goes into pesticides."

He said a group of farmers and foresters is looking to the Wisconsin legislature for protection from local regulations.

TheAmerican Farm Bureau Federation, an agriculture group based in a Park Ridge, Ill., had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Casey ordinance, saying "it destroys the integrity and uniformity of the federal pesticide regulatory system."

The federation filed a brief in the Supreme Court case.

"Uniform pesticide regulation is essential for farmers and ranchers to maintain economically viable operations," the brief said. "Orderly and uniform regulation of pesticide use on farmlands is of paramount importance to producers whose farms and ranches often span more than one municipal, township or county jurisdiction."

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