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Colorado debating bill that would allow local governments to regulate pesticides. Industry lobbyists are fighting it

A bill in the state legislature would allow cities to make their own rules on the chemicals, but applicators hammer a “patchwork” system
Kayakers compete in the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail's Gore Creek on June 13, 2021. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun file)

When a Vail property owner sprayed chemicals for aphid control, and left aspen trees dripping excess pesticide that flowed into Gore Creek in milky rivulets, Pete Wadden figured it was a good time to renew the push for local control.

Current state law preempts local governments from going beyond Colorado regulations to curtail controversial pesticide use. Wadden, the town of Vail’s watershed specialist, would like a 100-foot setback from Gore Creek for approved pesticide use, among other changes the town is currently blocked from implementing.

“We’ve seen bugs disappearing from the creek,” Wadden said. The town started noticing a decline in important feedstock for fish and wildlife at the height of the pine beetle invasion across Colorado, when homeowners and associations overapplied chemicals to combat the wave, he said.

“We’re spending a lot of money to try to restore Gore Creek. The community has made this a huge priority,” he said. “And yet we feel our hands are kind of tied by the state legislation that really prevents us from doing the one thing we need to do to recover this waterway.”

Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, a lead co-sponsor of House Bill 1178, said the measure would bring back local control options for pesticide regulation, while providing plenty of exemptions various industries have fought for, including agricultural use and fire mitigation and recovery.

“Pesticides can cause significant health and environmental impacts,” said Cutter, whose co-sponsors include Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins; Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood; and Sen. Sonya Jaquez-Lewis, D-Longmont. “I believe it’s important to let local governments decide how to best regulate them based on the unique needs of their communities.”

Lobbyists at the Capitol are shepherding a broad group of opponents to the bill, ranging from the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers to the Restaurant Association to the National Pest Management Association. Their arguments break into three parts:

  • Colorado already has a statewide licensing system for pesticide applicators setting up consistent methods across all Colorado counties and towns. No other state, they argue, has moved to a local “patchwork” of regulation like the bill’s sponsors are proposing, opponents say.
  • Neighbor farmers and towns can’t afford to let another neighbors’ regulations control what they do in eliminating pests that ruin crops, threaten landscapes and spread disease. Pests don’t know the boundaries, of course, so exemptions for agriculture that may be nearby don’t help.
  • Restaurants and other multi-location businesses cross many town boundaries, and need uniform, effective statewide regulation to make sure all their properties and customers are protected equally.

Pesticide applicator Will LaPoint is adamant about the “pests and weeds don’t know boundaries” argument.

“I run an office in Fort Collins currently, and I have different applicators running routes to do pesticide applications every day,” said LaPoint, branch manager of SavATree. “On the lawn care side of things they can each go to 25 or 30 different houses and span three counties and seven cities,” in the same day, he said.

“And if we were to have to change products and equipment and abide by different rules, it would make it really hard to abide by those laws and try to do everything safely,” he said.

LaPoint said he and other industry people have heard the stories from Vail and other towns about trees saturated with dripping chemicals, and threats to watersheds. Current state law allows Vail to get state inspectors and regulators involved, LaPoint said; local control would not necessarily eliminate mishandling of pesticides.

“Ninety-five percent of the companies out there aren’t looking to do that,” LaPoint said. “We all try to follow the rules. Are there some bad apples? Of course. We want to eliminate that for sure. But I think that the way that the EPA has set it up and the Department of Agriculture, I think that’s the best way to try to mitigate most of that stuff.”

The “knows no boundaries” argument cuts both ways, supporters of the local control bill say. Too many applicators are using broad sprays and treatments that end up in nearby yards, forests and watersheds where they don’t belong and can do damage to wildlife and humans, Wadden said.

Vail doesn’t want weed or pest outbreaks any more than other towns, he said – Canadian thistle is an ongoing battle in and around the storied summer Bavarian-style village.

“But there are ways to do it that are less likely to impact nontargeted species,” he said.

Sure, Vail can complain to the state agriculture department about mistakes like the dripping aphid chemicals, Wadden said, but a response can take two days or more.

“I think most chemical applicators are probably operating very responsibly. But I think those that might be tempted not to are aware that they can act with impunity in Eagle County because enforcement is such a remote possibility,” he said.

The legislation removing state preemption and allowing local control passed the House Energy and Environment Committee, and is up for a second House floor reading in coming days in the last month of the legislative session.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.