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Powell: Farms vs. environmentalists on agricultural chemicals

Long Island farmers say they need the state

Long Island farmers say they need the state to approve new, less harmful pesticides. Above, a farm on the North Fork Credit: Randee Daddona

The Long Island Farm Bureau told the Newsday editorial board on Monday that the public has misconceptions about pesticides -- starting with their very definition.

Joe Gergela, executive director of the bureau, said in a meeting with the board that even ordinary baking soda and chlorine for pools fall into that category. And he said many pesticides serve the important function of protecting crops and eliminating disease-carrying insects.

The local farm bureau and its statewide umbrella organization are in a tug-of-war with environmental organizations over what action New York State should take to protect water quality, especially on Long Island, which gets all of its supply from the one aquifer under our feet.

The farm group’s concern began in 2011 when the state Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft proposal calling for "zero tolerance" of pesticides found in the drinking water. The farm bureau lobbied intensely to change the draft, and this January it was the environmentalists who were upset.

The updated proposal calls for a technical review and an advisory committee to monitor water quality instead of an outright ban on pesticides detected in water sources.

The pullback by DEC has upset many environmental groups, including the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Adrienne Esposito, chairwoman of the organization, wrote an op-ed piece in Newsday earlier this month calling for the State Legislature to ban three pesticides -- imidacloprid, metalaxyl and atrazine -- if DEC fails to do so.

"There are alternatives to fungicides, insecticides and pesticides, but there is no alternative source of drinking water,” she wrote. “We know how to protect drinking water -- we just need a state regulatory agency with the political will and support to do so.”

The farm bureau, however, argued that the decision to ban pesticides should be a scientific issue, not a political one, and its members want scientists to evaluate each chemical in question and determine alternatives or ways to reduce usage before they are banned.

Banning common pesticides means "the imminent death of our industry," said Frank Beyrodt Jr., president of the farm bureau and executive vice president of DeLea Sod Farms in Elwood.

Gergela said the island's farmers are as concerned about the aquifer as everyone else.

"We are not going about our business to contaminate groundwater,” he said. “That's a ridiculous notion."

He said the agricultural industry on Long Island is important. It provides jobs and attracts tourism, along with providing locally grown food and plants.

The comment period on the new DEC regulations ends this month and a final decision is expected by the end of the year.

Whatever the final outcome, we will all reap the harvest of it for years to come.