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Editorial: Long Island farmers need guidance on pesticides

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

As pesticides continue to show up in Long Island drinking water, it is time, after a full decade, for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to release for public comment a draft pesticide-use management plan.

In a recent letter to Joe Martens, the DEC commissioner, Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, said "the time for waiting has passed." The agency has received more than 4,000 letters demanding an end to the delay.

For the Island, pesticides are a complex issue. Agriculture is a key industry, and it needs pesticides to do its work. But the Island also has a sole-source aquifer: All our drinking water comes from beneath our feet. So chemicals used on today's vegetables will eventually show up in our water.

Traces of some pesticides have shown up hundreds of times at hundreds of locations. On the East End, where agriculture is dominant, half of the private wells show contamination. Even in Nassau, with few farms, residential use of pesticide and weed-killer is a problem.

Manufacturers say they test these products for potential human impacts and find them safe. But they may not be safe when multiple chemicals interact in our groundwater.

So, what we need is an approach that aims to reject the most dangerous products -- especially those most easily soluble in water -- and establish a careful but speedy process for DEC to certify new, safer pesticides.

Our farmers here are smart, resourceful and willing to switch to less harmful pesticides. They correctly point out that DEC takes a long time to register new ones -- no surprise, given the severe depletion of DEC staff. But staff cuts are not the key to the delay of the plan. That is more likely due to opposition from the New York Farm Bureau and pesticide manufacturers.

DEC is in a tough spot, but the law requires it to protect our water. So its failure to get around to putting out a plan for public comment, so we can start reducing use of dangerous pesticides, can no longer be tolerated.