Spring 2005

At the 2004 Toxics Action Conference, held at Bowdoin College, participants discussed persistent problems with institutions that are unwilling to tackle the problem of toxics in Maine and celebrated recent victories in fighting local pollution.

State representative Joanne Twomey gave one keynote address. A representative since 1998 and a city council member in Biddeford six years before that, Twomey began her political career fighting the location of a trash incinerator in her hometown. When the company backed down and made plans to locate the incinerator in another town, Twomey fought its location there too. “NIMBY [“Not In My Backyard”] doesn’t exist with me,” she told an appreciative audience. As a legislator, she said, she tried to stay connected to her political role as a citizen, but was often frustrated by bureaucratic red tape inhibiting the progress of issues dear to her, such as dioxin reduction. “It’s not just about how much legislation you pass, it’s about being that activist off the street,” she said. “But when it comes down to the budget, there’s never enough money for the environment.”

Conference attendees chose from workshops on subjects from “Pollution in Our Rivers” to “Working with the Media.” Tanya Brown (a campaign coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network of North America), Josh Kratka (a senior attorney at the National Environmental Law Center) and Will Everitt (Maine Field Director for the Toxics Action Center) led a workshop entitled “Toxic Pesticides in Maine.”

Issues with Pesticides

“Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Everitt, who grew up on a conventional farm and, at age 18, had his commercial pesticide applicator’s license. “They’re meant to kill stuff.” One participant asked about a pesticide-related problem: Brunswick’s park director had complained that playing fields in a local park were dangerous because of slippery weeds, and wished to apply herbicides. The park is on porous soil over a shallow aquifer that is part of the city’s water supply. A town ordinance prohibits spraying pesticides over aquifers, but those in favor of spraying the field hoped to roll back that ordinance. Everitt responded that municipalities are good places for political action, because passing ordinances such as a ban on spraying pesticides on town property is relatively easy, compared with passing state or national legislation.

Kratka discussed a recent example of how the legal system can help environmental activists. Cherryfield Foods, one of the state’s three biggest blueberry producers along with Jasper Wyman and Sons and Allen’s Blueberries, agreed to cease aerial spraying when threatened with a lawsuit based on the Clean Water Act, which controls the deposition of pollutants into water from a point source. (It does not control pollution from such nonpoint sources as agricultural runoff, frequently the most significant contributors to water pollution in nonindustrial areas.) The company will opt for boom spraying instead, which tends to create less drift because chemicals are released closer to the ground. Citizens living near blueberry fields had reported pilots neglecting to turn off spray equipment at the end of a field or spraying the wrong field, clam die-offs from pesticide runoff from blueberry fields in coastal areas, and measurable quantities of the herbicide Velpar in school drinking water. The Toxics Action Center planned to meet with the Wyman company soon to try for a similar agreement.

Brown explained the difference between spray drift, which is pesticide particles that appear away from the spraying site during or immediately after application, and post-application drift, such as volatilization of pesticides hours after application or wind-blown dust contaminated by pesticides. The EPA does not officially acknowledge the existence of post-application drift. Brown displayed some equipment used by PANNA to monitor drift. The Drift Catcher vacuums air through a flow meter into resin-containing tubes that trap pesticide molecules and enables researchers to determine the average concentration of pesticide particles in the air during a certain time. The equipment costs only $500, but each sample costs up to $200 to analyze in a commercial lab.

Brown also contrasted acute and chronic health effects of pesticide exposure. The former, in response to an instantaneous and high level of pesticide exposure, creates symptoms such as nausea, respiratory problems and headaches and causes 2,000 to 5,000 hospitalizations every year in the United States. The latter, which Brown called “second-hand pesticides,” can lead to cancer, reproductive and neurological disorders and developmental problems; use of pesticides in homes may raise the risk of brain cancer several-fold, she said.

Environmental Oscars

The Toxics Action Center presented its Citizen Awards, or “environmental Oscars,” at the conference. One went to two groups from Harpswell that fought development of a liquefied natural gas facility: Fishing Families for Harpswell consisted of local working families; and Fair Play for Harpswell was composed of out-of-towners who vacationed in the area. The two cooperated but chose to stay separate to avoid “cultural clashes” and strife that would impede their cause. The treasurer of Fishing Families for Harpswell, Paul Hickey, was excited about the political volatilization created by the natural gas facility: “When the fishing community finds a voice, you have to keep it.”

The Old Town group “We the People” got an award for forcing the town to act against a leaky landfill. A group called CROPS, which collected anecdotal evidence for the Cherryfield Foods lawsuit, won another prize. The last went to Grand View Neighborhood for opposing clearcuts for gravel pits along the Kennebec in North Augusta and Sidney; it pushed through a moratorium on gravel mining.

Casella’s Solid Waste Clout

Johanna Neumann, an employee of the Toxics Action Center, led a discussion entitled “Solid Waste: Problems and Solutions,” focusing on the actions of Casella, a vertically integrated solid waste processing company (regionally monopolizing waste hauling, incinerators and landfills) with almost 100 subsidiaries. Although all New England states are short of their recycling goals, Casella encourages state governments to build more and bigger landfills and incinerators and takes the profits from these ventures. Neumann claims that each new Casella facility created is almost invariably followed by environmental pollution, anti-competitive business practices, relentless expansion and aggressive litigation in the face of opposition. Near one facility in Massachusetts, citizens found “black sludge” being dumped into wetlands adjacent to the town drinking water supply. Legal battles against Casella facilities have been raging all over New England, including a 10-year-old case in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. The Toxics Action Center is preparing a report on the actions of Casella that may be available at www.toxicsaction.org this year.

Citizen Activism a Must

State representative Ted Koffman delivered the second keynote address. A third-term legislator from Mount Desert Island, he is also an administrator at College of the Atlantic, a member of the Maine Smart Growth Forum, and chair of the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee of Natural Resources. Koffman calls himself a “reluctant warrior” on environmental issues but admits that his wife calls him “Mr. Ecology” (especially if he leaves lights on or water running), and he has received a 100% rating from the Maine League of Conservation Voters. Like Twomey, he celebrated the role of the private citizen in achieving political progress for the environment. “Citizen activism is one of our oldest American traditions, and it’s almost uniquely American,” he said. Also like Twomey, he does not believe that the “official” government is capable of getting the job done right by itself, without public pressure. “I am amazed at how often legislators think passing a law gets the job done … too often the bureaucracy does nothing to enforce it.” For example, he said the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife refused to give the Natural Resources Committee information on wading bird habitat, fearing that the committee would try to protect private land from development.

Afternoon workshops included “Dioxin in Maine” and “Designing a Web Site for Your Group.” The conference concluded with a general reception.

– Alice Torbert

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