The Senate decided Tuesday to indefinitely postpone the vote to override a bill that would ban chlorpyrifos, which means that Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s veto of the bill stands.
Senate Bill 300 was introduced last year by Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) and would have banned chlorpyrifos, a powerful and controversial pesticide used on food crops and golf courses and has been linked to neurodevelopment issues for children. The bill would have also established a Pesticide Transition Fund and Pesticide Transition Task Force to help farmers move away from using chlorpyrifos.
Because the Maryland Department of Agriculture has implemented regulations to phase out the chemical, Lam said overriding the bill was no longer necessary. Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) moved to postpone the vote to override Hogan’s veto on SB 300 indefinitely, which means that the bill is tabled for the rest of session and that Hogan’s veto stands, Lam said. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said that motion gets adopted automatically without debate.
However, lawmakers can still pass legislation if the Agriculture Department does not follow through with its regulations, Lam said.
“If there’s any sign that the department is not acting in accordance with what they have proposed as the prior regulations for this, we would move very quickly to pass another bill that would dictate to the department what needs to be done,” Lam said.
In mid-February last year, while Lam’s bill was still under consideration, the Agriculture Department announced that it would take steps to phase out chlorpyrifos and adopted regulations in June, prohibiting anyone from using insecticides containing chlorpyrifos after Dec. 31, 2020. For specific cases, however, a person or business can request to use chlorpyrifos, but there is a hard stop for such exceptions by Dec. 31, 2021.
The department also established a new committee that will be responsible for finding alternatives to using chlorpyrifos.
“It’s not perfect; I think there are ways that the regulations that MDA have put out could be strengthened, but it gets us most of the way there to eliminating chlorpyrifos usage as a pesticide,” Lam said.
The Pesticide Transition Task Force included in the bill would have required the Agriculture Department to identify alternatives to chlorpyrifos, hold at least two public meetings a year and submit its findings and recommendations to the secretary of Agriculture and the General Assembly.
But “given the fact that the department is already moving forward with things and with the new Biden administration coming in, there’s some likelihood that this will resolve itself very quickly,” Lam said.
However, advocates say that overriding the veto was necessary because regulations are not enough and can be easily changed. If a chlorpyrifos ban was enacted into law, the public would have a transparent recourse and more opportunities to demand accountability, said Ruth Berlin, the executive director of Maryland Pesticide Network. Regulations, on the other hand, can be disregarded more easily than laws and are therefore not sustainable, Berlin continued.
A chemical that has been linked to autism, learning disabilities and other neurodevelopmental issues “rises to the level where families need the certainty of law that they are being protected from [chlorpyrifos], she continued. It’s an issue that needs to be closely evaluated by public health experts, instead of an agency that prioritizes agricultural interests, Berlin said.
Furthermore, leaving the usage chlorpyrifos up to regulations “plays into the hands of the pesticide industry,” said Bonnie Raindrop of Maryland Pesticide Network.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that chlorpyrifos was dangerous and worked towards banning the chemical in food and pesticides products, but these regulations were rolled back early in the Trump administration. This led states like Maryland and California to propose legislation to nix the chemical at the state level.
Last month, Biden promised to reexamine 48 policies related to the EPA, including one on chlorpyrifos.
But advocates worry that banning chlorpyrifos may not be at the top of Biden’s priority list right now. Although the Obama administration proposed an outright ban of the chemical, it’s more likely that Biden’s administration will enter into a voluntary agreement with the pesticide industry, which opens the door to “dangerous exemptions,” Berlin said.
Only Hawaii and California have issued statewide bans of the chemical. New York passed a similar bill in 2019, but it was vetoed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
“We cannot wait for something to go awry with [the Agriculture Department] and have to come back in 2022 to pass yet another bill that could again be vetoed or undermined,” Berlin said. “We need this now for our children and it has national implications.”