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Md. Senate passes pesticide bill minus labeling requirements

The Senate took a step toward protecting the state’s pollinators on Wednesday but a step that was smaller than originally intended.

The Pollinator Protection Act of 2016 would restrict retail sale of neonicotinoid pesticides unless the seller is a certified applicator, farmer or veterinarian.

But the Senate bill, which passed 32-14, doesn’t have a major part of the bill from its original version — a requirement for retailers to apply labels or put signage near products containing the pesticide. The provision was added to this year’s bill to give more flexibility to retailers.

The bill was cross-filed by Del. Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, and Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore city and county. A similar version was unsuccessfully introduced by both legislators last year.

Josh Hoffman, Nathan-Pulliam’s chief of staff, said removing the labeling and signage provision “weakens the bill” but has been a contentious issue from the start. Aside from a possible added burden for businesses that sell neonicotinoid products, proponents questioned whether the pesticide is the sole cause of why bees have been dying out in rapid rates. Some evidence has pointed to climate change as a possible cause, though a report by the Environmental Protection Agency that came out earlier this year said the pesticides can hurt fertility in bees.

Hoffman expects labeling “will definitely come up in future sessions,” unless compelling evidence comes out that neonicotinoids are not harmful to pollinators.

Based on a cursory view of the Senate bill, Healey expects the House to follow suit in dropping the labeling and signage provisions.

“We may well want to make the House bill like the Senate bill and move forward,” she said, adding that the priority is to restrict consumer access to the pesticide. Healey said she doesn’t know when the House Environment and Transportation Committee will meet to discuss the bill.

The Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club has been working for three years on legislation to restrict neonicotinoid use and protect pollinators. While the group was disappointed that the labeling provision was taken out, it will encourage the House to move forward with the Senate version of the bill to make sure it ends up on Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk this year, said chapter director Josh Tulkin.

“We’re excited and supportive of the version that passed,” said Tulkin. “It’s going to make a major step forward in restricting consumer use of a dangerous, bee-killing pesticide.”

Ruth Berlin, executive director of Maryland Pesticide Education Network, was also pleased with the Senate outcome, despite the change in the bill.

“We’re really pleased that there is a step being taken that would reduce the use of neonics in the state. That’s really important,” she said.

Even if it becomes law, this bill is just one small step, she said.

“The message that the beekeepers and produce farmers in the state have put out there is: We’re running out of time,” said Berlin.

It’s difficult to link a particular factor to a specific improvement in pollinator populations, which would make it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the legislation if it becomes law, said Tulkin. It may take a few years to notice a change and to see how well the law is being implemented.

“We’re optimistic, but this is only one piece of the puzzle.”