Energy & Environment

House passes bill giving state authority to regulate pesticides used to treat seeds, utility poles

House representatives approved a bill Thursday giving the state authority to regulate products treated with pesticides such as seeds, telephone poles and pressure treated lumber.

H.861 passed with broad support, despite complaints from some that representatives of affected industries hadn’t been properly consulted.

“Not regulating toxic substances that may pose a threat to humans or the environment would be reckless and irresponsible,” said Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products where the bill originated.”We’ve learned too many things the hard way.”

Treated wood has been blamed for water contamination. So-called neonicotinoids, which are used to treat seeds, have been tied to declines in bee populations. Bees are crucial in the pollination of crops.

The bill gives the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets the authority to regulate what are called “treated articles.” The Environmental Protection Agency uses this term to denote products treated with pesticides, such as utility poles, commercial crop seeds, and lumber.

The agency currently regulates pesticide and herbicide use with the exception of treated articles. Federal law gives rulemaking authority over pesticides to states, but that authority doesn’t extend to products pretreated with pesticides. States are granted rulemaking authority only for pretreated materials manufactured in-state.

Utility companies may dislike the bill, some lawmakers said, since it could subject the treated wooden poles for power lines to ag agency regulation. Fungicide used in the poles has been connected to surface water contamination in isolated cases, lawmakers said.

Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Kristin Carlson said the company is seeking other ways to treat utility poles, but existing alternatives aren’t suitable for most applications.

The company uses alternative treatments for poles located near springs and surface waters, Carlson said. But in general, she said poles treated with the alternative materials harden the poles so that workers’ spikes don’t stick well when they climb. Carlson also said the Agency of Natural Resources already regulates utility poles.

The rule isn’t meant to institute widespread regulation over electric transmission poles, Zagar said. It is hoped to give the ag agency the ability to write appropriate rules in response to recommendations from a pollinator protection committee.

Most commercial-crop seeds come treated with a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which numerous studies have correlated with bee die-offs. Legislators have crafted a bill now before the House that would establish a committee to study a proper approach to the use of such seeds within the state. Another bill that observers say isn’t likely to succeed would ban the use of neonicotinoids altogether.

Because such seeds aren’t regulated by the Agency of Agriculture, that body has no firm data on how prevalent neonicotinoid use is within the state, but agency reports state that within Vermont no connection has been observed between these substances and bee mortality.

Nevertheless, according to a January 2015 Agency of Agriculture report entitled “Pollinator health and neonicotinoids,” further study could more definitely establish hazards arising from the use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds. In such an event, the agency would best serve the state’s interests if it had authority to make appropriate rules in response, the report said.

Without H.861, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets wouldn’t have the authority to regulate neonicotinoids. The agency's authority would be based on recommendations of the pollinator protection committee, Zagar said.

Environmental advocates hailed the bill’s passage through the House as an important step.

“We see that neonicotinoid-treated seeds are potentially a major problem,” said Robb Kidd, organizing representative for Vermont’s Sierra Club chapter. “Scientific studies have proven that neonicotinoids are toxic to bees, and we can’t be [taking] any risks with our pollinators, so we agree the [agriculture] agency should have the ability to regulate treated seeds and other treated articles.”

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Mike Polhamus

About Mike

Mike Polhamus wrote about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He formerly covered Teton County and the state of Wyoming for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in Jackson, Wyoming. Polhamus studied at Southwestern Oregon Community College, University of Oxford and Sarah Lawrence College. His research has been commissioned on a variety of topics such as malnutrition and HIV, economic development, and Plato’s Phaedo. Polhamus hails originally from the state of Oregon. He now lives in Montreal.

Email: [email protected]

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