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Schneiderman Pushes Pesticide Control Over Wetland, Again

Michael Wright
The Southampton Press

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman has introduced a bill calling for Suffolk County to restrict where and when it uses pesticides to control mosquito populations around tidal marshes.

The bill would limit the use of a chemical pesticide known as methoprene over or near tidal waters, where it has been blamed by fishermen and environmentalists for killing or deforming some aquatic animals like crabs and lobsters. If adopted, the legislation would allow methoprene to be used in tidal marshes and estuaries only if a specific disease, like West Nile virus or eastern equine encephalitis, has been positively identified by county health officials in samples of mosquitoes from the region.

The bill also provides that the county’s Department of Health commissioner could certify that methoprene may be used over tidal waters if he deems it necessary to avoid a public health emergency and would preclude the use of harsher chemicals.

“No, this doesn’t say they can never use methoprene, but only in very limited circumstances,” Mr. Schneiderman said of his proposed legislation last week. “If we are going to use this chemical in our estuaries, there should be very specific conditions. There was a study up in Connecticut that showed this stuff is building up in lobsters and may be leading to high mortality rates. Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted these restrictions—it’s time the legislature acted accordingly.”

It is the second time that Mr. Schneiderman has proposed that the county adopt restrictions on the use of methoprene. A similar bill he proposed in 2007, in the wake of a series of lawsuits challenging the environmental safety of the county’s entire mosquito control program, was never brought to a vote by the legislature.

In 2007, the county’s appointed Council on Environmental Quality recommended that the county halt the use of methoprene because of what it said was “damning evidence” about environmental dangers, but was overruled by a majority in the legislature—after which four members of the council resigned in protest.

Connecticut and Rhode Island have both adopted statewide controls on the use of methoprene, which is also known by the commercial name Altosid, following the discovery last year of traces of the chemical in tissue samples taken from Long Island Sound lobsters.

Lobster fishermen from Connecticut and western Long Island sued the producers of several mosquito pesticides in 2001 after a massive die-off of lobsters in Long Island Sound in 1999. The suit pointed to widespread spraying of mosquito pesticides amid the fervor surrounding the emergence of West Nile virus in the region and heavy rainfalls that the fishermen claimed washed large amounts of pesticides into the estuaries leading to the sound. The suit was settled out of court in 2006 with the companies paying the lobstermen $3.75 million.

Environmental advocates say that the legislation in Suffolk County is a good first step, but that restrictions on the use of methoprene should go much further, and perhaps ban its use entirely.

Kevin McAllister, president of Peconic Baykeeper, an environmental advocacy organization that filed lawsuits against the county in the early 2000s over its mosquito control efforts, says that the county has obfuscated facts about the dangers of methoprene and wholly dismissed anecdotal evidence from across the island of the ill effects of mosquito spraying near marshes.

“Jay [Schneiderman] is stepping out in front of this, and that’s good, and it’s timely in summer, because people are thinking about mosquitoes,” Mr. McAllister said. “But it’s time we took another hard look at what we’re using, particularly how it is applied. This is a product that when it’s sold in Australia is labeled with a warning that it can cause long-term impacts in the marine environment.”

Mr. McAllister pointed to testimony at hearings held by the county after a fish kill in Flanders Bay in 2002, at which baymen said they had seen large-scale die-offs of blue claw crabs that seemed to coincide with the bi-weekly spraying of marshes around the spring tides. In 2007, both Southampton and East Hampton towns made official requests that the county Division of Vector Control, the county’s mosquito control agency, not spray methoprene over town-controlled wetlands. The county has largely ignored those requests on the basis that their protection of public health supersedes the town’s environmental concerns.

In 2012, the East Hampton Town Board declined to ban the use of methoprene anywhere in the town as requested by the East Hampton Town Trustees.

Neither Suffolk County Division of Vector Control director Dominick Ninivaggi nor Department of Public Works commissioner Gilbert Anderson returned a request for comment.

Methoprene is a kind of pesticide known as a “larvicide,” because it targets mosquitoes in their larval stages, when they live in shallow pools of water. It is largely viewed as far less toxic than “adulticides,” which kill adult mosquitoes outright and are already restricted from being used near tidal waters.

The chemical mimics the mosquitoes’ natural hormones and disrupts their normal developmental cycle, killing them before they become adults. But fishermen and some scientists have pointed to evolutionary ancestral connections between insects and marine crustaceans, and to deformities found in crabs and lobsters that would seem to point to abnormalities in their developmental cycles.

Mr. Schneiderman pointed out that Vector Control also has at least two bacteria-based agents that it commonly uses to kill mosquito larvae that do not pose a developmental threat to other species. Mr. McAllister added that since diseases like West Nile virus are picked up by mosquitoes after they are adults, methoprene should not be seen as an effective weapon for combating the spread of disease—a point that Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst also nodded to as evidence that the use of such chemicals is not worth the benefits of fewer mosquitoes.

“If someone could give me an irrefutable nexus between the spraying and a reduction of what is a true public safety threat here, I may think differently, but right now I don’t see anything that justifies the potential long-term effects of putting those chemicals in our waterways,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “I’m wholly unconvinced that the science is out there that disproves a seemingly logical side effect of this spraying. And people get bit by mosquitoes anyway.”