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COMMENTARY

Rhode Island needs to protect its pollinators by regulating harmful pesticides

Many Rhode Island cities and towns have growing concerns about dangerous pesticides like neonics, but they are unable to pass their own restrictions because state law precludes local regulation, environmental advocates say

Pollinators — such as butterflies, bees, and certain bird species — play a critical role in our ecosystems and agriculture. They ensure that plant species can reproduce and thrive — producing many of the foods we consume daily from farms and orchards. The steep and alarming decline of pollinators has been documented globally, and Rhode Island is no different.

Pesticides have harmful consequences for beneficial pollinators, even more so when these chemicals are not used properly. Last year, the Rhode Island House of Representatives made the first move in decades to rein in the impacts of pesticides that can negatively affect our ecosystems and public health. This year the General Assembly has the opportunity to actually adopt these first meaningful and commonsense restrictions on pesticides.

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The General Assembly established a Pollinator Working Group in 2016, recognizing that, “bees have been subject to stress and impairment in the United States and elsewhere to the extent that pollinator habitat and health have become matters of reasonable, significant public and environmental concern.” Recognizing that there are many things that affect pollinators in our environment, the working group made several recommendations, including: “Modernize the state’s pesticide program. The program — laws and regulations — are thirty years old and do not take into account development in pesticides, the pest control industry, pests and circumstances of applications as they relate to pollinator safety.”

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are a class of insecticides that affect the central nervous system of insects — resulting in paralysis and death. When sprayed on plants, its residue can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants — which poses potential risks to pollinators, birds, pets, and people.

Representative Rebecca Kislak and Senator Joshua Miller have reintroduced legislation to restrict neonics use. What does this mean? It would take neonics out of the hands of untrained users. Pesticides on the restricted list require an additional test and registration — akin to passing an extra exam to drive a large commercial truck instead of a regular sedan. It’s a basic test to prove that users of neonicotinoids are familiar with the chemical and the proper way it should be applied.

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While many environmentalists would support a full ban of these harmful chemicals, we recognize that there may occasionally be situations where they are the ‘least bad’ option to deal with a pest causing destruction to a home or farm. Lawn care professionals, farmers, and other specialists would be able to become certified to use the insecticides if necessary. Recently, the RI Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM) announced a partnership with Everblue, a training company that offers registrations and exams online, to streamline the licensing process for commercial applicators throughout the state. This is a significant step toward modernizing the state’s pesticide program and ensures that those professionals who may need to get certified for the use of this pesticide have the opportunity to do so.

Neighboring states are way ahead of Rhode Island. Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have passed similar laws in recent years. Although many Rhode Island cities and towns have growing concerns about dangerous pesticides like neonics, they are unable to pass their own restrictions on pesticides as state law precludes local regulation of pesticides. Protected open spaces are already successfully managed without the use of neonicotinoid pesticides by property owners including the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, The Nature Conservancy, RI DEM, and the City of Providence’s Parks Department.

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Taking pesticides out of the hands of untrained users is a positive first step, and consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendations. As a densely populated state where sod and nursery products are a prime agricultural product, it is time to pass this legislation to protect not only our pollinators but all Rhode Islanders.

Sue AnderBois is the Climate & Energy Program Manager at The Nature Conservancy. Priscilla De La Cruz is the Senior Director of Government Affairs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.