Revamped state policy on pesticides splits farmers, environmentalists

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Farmers are praising the state's latest strategy to regulate pesticides, but environmental groups ripped the plan, claiming it doesn't do enough to keep chemicals out of Long Island's groundwater.

About 100 people attended a public hearing at the Riverhead campus of Suffolk County Community College, sponsored by the Department of Environmental Conservation, to comment on the draft of the Long Island Pesticide Pollution Prevention Strategy, which was released in January. The plan calls for the state to continue monitoring groundwater for pesticides and to create technical working groups. It also would allow for future implementation of new regulations on pesticides.

The latest proposal is a sharp departure from a 2011 DEC draft plan, according to farmers, environmentalists and DEC officials. That plan was praised by environmental groups but derided by farmers, who believed that its aggressive stance toward pesticides would hurt their ability to maintain agriculture on Long Island.

At Wednesday's hearing, Deputy DEC Commissioner Eugene L. Leff said the current plan is much less likely to draw a legal challenge than its predecessor.

"This program will achieve more, more quickly," Leff said. But environmentalists said the new plan still falls short, saying it lacks defined goals or triggers to improve drinking water.

"It's woefully lethargic," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the environmental group Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "There's more protection for the status quo than for drinking water."

She complained the state couldn't even say whether pesticide levels in groundwater were going up or down.

Leff said data for trends on pesticides and groundwater wouldn't be available until next year. But farming advocates noted that almost all of the studies showed only trace amounts of pesticide, well below levels the federal government deemed safe for humans to drink.

Pesticides are necessary to continue farming successfully in eastern Long Island, growers said.

"Pesticide is to plant as medicine is to human," said Deborah Schmitt, who grows vegetables in Riverhead. "Zero tolerance will put us out of business. Zero tolerance means zero farms."

The former draft released by the DEC included zero tolerance on some pesticide uses, a level Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said was unacceptable.

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