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Policy update August 2020: Governor signs mosquito control law, creates “21st Century Task Force”

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2020 August Issue Newsletter

By Marty Dagoberto, NOFA/Mass Policy Director

At the time of writing (7/29/20) we are in the final days of the formal legislative session - too soon to update you all on the fate of most legislative priorities (for that, tune in next month), and current action alerts will likely no longer be relevant when this is received. For the latest updates and action alerts on bills still in play, please visit our action page. What follows is an update on one bill of particular concern to our members, which was signed into law in July. 

As organic gardeners and farmers, we are all concerned about the overreliance on pesticides to control mosquitoes. Many of you took up our call to action in May when we called for an overhaul of Governor Baker’s initial plan for a statewide mosquito disease management program. The original bill would have allowed the Mosquito Reclamation Board to spray pesticides anywhere in the state, with no advance notice, and no clear  requirement to allow an “opt-out” process for spraying. These powers would have been granted indefinitely.

Thanks to people (like you!) speaking up in large numbers, thanks to the collaboration of a broad coalition of advocacy groups and especially thanks to the strong leadership of our legislative allies, the final bill signed by the Governor on July 20th was vastly improved, limiting powers granted and providing for much greater transparency (as outlined below). While we still have very strong concerns about the law and the reality that it will result in increased volumes of pesticides being sprayed across the state, the law also establishes a path toward a more ecological and transparent mosquito disease management program for the future through the creation of “Mosquito Control for the Twenty-First Century Task Force.”  Thank you to everyone who lent their voice to this process. This work continues!

Mosquito Prevention Tip #1: Seek out and drain all standing water on your property at least once a week to interrupt breeding cycles. For more great tips (including dubstep?) see and share this great article from Xerces Society

Proposed by Governor Baker in April, the original bill would have dramatically expanded the state’s authority to eradicate mosquitoes by chemical spraying. Not only is unrestricted spraying a threat to the integrity of insect biodiversity and ecosystem health that our farms and gardens rely upon, such spraying raises serious health concerns, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. These chemicals are known to elevate risk factors to our immune and respiratory systems. Not only that, but even according to the national Centers for Disease Control and US Environmental Protection Agency, spraying of pesticides to control adult mosquitoes is the least effective, and most environmentally damaging method to control mosquito diseases. 

Because unrestricted pesticide spraying is antithetical to the vision and mission of NOFA/Mass and an issue of such great importance to our members, we made this bill largely the focus of our policy work since it was introduced in April. We had the great fortune of being able to work closely with our legislative allies on the redrafting process and helped bring together a coalition of advocacy groups in order to coordinate our efforts.  

We would like to thank the many legislators who worked with NOFA/Mass and our coalition of environmental advocates to speak up in favor of proposals to amend and improve the legislation. The leadership, advocacy and guidance of Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Caroline Dykema were instrumental in this process. We are also so grateful to the dedicated advocacy of Representatives Natalie Blais, Lindsay Sabadosa, Mindy Domb, Maria Robinson, Denise Provost and Carol Doherty, all of whom worked tirelessly to improve this bill. 

The resulting final bill was substantially strengthened, as it better balanced environmental protections with concerns about EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis). We are grateful that we were able to build in several strong protections for both the environment and human health in this legislation.

Included in the final bill:

  • The state is given expanded authority to engage in mosquito control, only after the Department of Public Health declares that there is an elevated risk of arbovirus. The Department of Public Health must publicly publish the data supporting this declaration. Under that authority, the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board can then be active throughout the state. This includes public education, standing water drainage, ground larvicide application, and other steps in addition to pesticide spraying.
  • Before any spraying, there must be at least 48 hours advance public notice, including notice to local boards of health, property owners who have opted out of spraying, and farms, including beekeepers and certified organic farms. Anyone can use an online form if they want to be informed of aerial spraying in their region. The notice will include a process for people to opt out of spraying.
  • Cities and towns can also opt out entirely from pesticide spraying. If they wish to opt out, however, they must have an approved alternative mosquito management plan. The state will be required to provide guidance on appropriate “opt-out” plans.
  • There is an overall directive in the bill that, “All actions taken under the authority of this section shall be designed to protect public health while minimizing, to the extent feasible, any adverse impact to the environment.”
  • We are most proud that the bill establishes a Mosquito Control for the Twenty-First Century Task Force. Our current mosquito management system is a relic from the 1950s, and we hope that the Task Force recommendations will lead to a more modern system that incorporates the most up-to-date science about effective mosquito management and environmental protection. The Task Force includes several scientific experts and representatives from organizations concerned about land conservation, river protection, wildlife protection, agriculture, organic agriculture, and a statewide organization representing beekeepers or groups concerned about pollinators. We are pleased that we were able to include so many people on the Task Force who will bring a balanced understanding of the most effective ways to manage mosquitoes. All of the Task Force meetings must be open to the public, and they are required to hold a public listening session. Mass Rivers will be working with our coalition of environmental organizations to propose appointees to the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. 
  • The bill sunsets after two years (meaning the powers granted are temporary) and by then we hope to have enacted new legislation that reflects the recommendations of the Task Force. 

The full law, as signed by Governor Baker, can be found here:

Chapter 120: An Act to Mitigate Arbovirus in the Commonwealth 

What now? 

The hard part comes next. Implementation of this legislation and the Task Force’s eventual recommendations will require careful monitoring and attention to the actions of the Mosquito Control Board, and active participation with the Task Force. This will set our course on this issue for the next decades. We expect to have a representative of NOFA/Mass sit on the task force as “a statewide organization representing organic agriculture” (a position we secured in the bill). 

We will continue to work on this issue with our environmental advocacy partners and will keep you apprised of opportunities to weigh in during the implementation process. If any of our members would like to help provide input and support the work of the Task Force, please get in touch. Please email our Policy Director (marty[at]nofamass.org) with the subject line “Mosquito Control Task Force.” 

We are grateful to be a part of a robust and growing coalition of water protectors, pollinator protectors and conservation groups working together to reform mosquito disease control in Massachusetts, including: Beyond PesticidesClean Water Action, Community Action Works (Toxics Action Center), Conservation Law Foundation, EcoHealth AdvocatesIpswich River Watershed AssociationJones River Watershed AssociationLEAD for Pollinators, Mass. Association of Conservation Commissions (MACC)Mass AudubonMass Beekeepers AssociationMass Rivers Alliance, Mass. Sierra ClubOARS for the Assabet Sudbury and Concord RiversPEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) and Regeneration Massachusetts.

 

HOW TO “OPT OUT” OF WIDE AREA PESTICIDE APPLICATIONS

Anyone in Massachusetts can request to be excluded from wide area applications of pesticides through the Dept. of Agriculture (renters must have the permission of their landlord). When someone fills out the form found on this page, it goes directly to the mosquito control project that services that town and that property will be excluded.

However, when a public health hazard is declared by the Department of Public Health and emergency spraying needs to take place, those exclusions are not honored during the time that is set forth in the DPH declaration, unless it is a certified organic farm. But at least if someone has filled out this form, they will be notified if/when spraying occurs.   

The Department reaches out to the certified organic farms at the beginning of the season to gather information relative to their location so that if an emergency application does take place they have their information to include in their mapping. If someone is in the process of being certified organic with Baystate Organic Certifiers or another certifier, they are also eligible to be excluded from wide area pesticide applications, even under emergency declaration. Those who are in the process of becoming certified or were recently certified should fill out the exclusion form and contact MDAR directly to confirm that they will be excluded as an organic operation.  

How to Request Exclusion from Wide Area Pesticide Applications

NOTE: Exclusion requests must be filed EACH CALENDAR YEAR.

Note also that excluded properties should be marked with signage saying “No Spray” as outlined on the above-linked page.

Please see the state’s “FAQ” on Exclusions from Wide Area Pesticide Applications, here. 

Getting your entire town to opt out of spraying

As explained above, under the new law cities and towns can also opt out entirely from pesticide spraying. If they wish to opt out, however, they must have an approved alternative mosquito management plan. The state will be required to provide guidance on appropriate “opt-out” plans. We are also working with our partners at Beyond Pesticides to provide additional resources and model plans for town-level mosquito management. If anyone would like to work with their town officials in order to implement such a plan, please get in touch! Contact our Policy Director (marty[at]nofamass.org) with the subject line “Municipal Opt Out.” 

It’s a long road ahead to move our Commonwealth toward a more ecological mosquito disease management program. Our organic movement will continue to be instrumental to that conversation. We all need to help educate our local town officials, Boards of Health and state legislators as to the risks associated with these pesticides and how effective a pro-active, ecological approach can be to addressing mosquito disease. 

To learn more about ecological mosquito disease management:

For one of the best educational resources on this topic, we refer our members to the Beyond Pesticides website “Mosquito Management and Insect-Borne Diseases.” 

Get active in your community! Community Pesticides Reduction

To get plugged into the monthly “Community Pesticides Reduction (CPR)” video calls, at which we workshop related local efforts, click here.

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