Council rejects adherence to “the precautionary principle” when it comes to chemical pesticides

By David F. Rooney

An attempt by Councillor Antoinette Halberstadt to convince the rest of Council it should adhere to the “precautionary principle” when dealing with the nasty cosmetic pesticide issue failed this week because the rest of Council claimed it didn’t want to “fetter” future Councils.

Halberstadt’s motion called on Council members to “base their decisions and deliberations regarding cosmetic pesticides on the precautionary principle and the will of the majority of citizens, rather than on arguments for and against the alleged safety or harmfulness of specific pesticides, including 2,4-D.”

The precautionary principle states: “Given the best available information, where there is no scientific consensus on risks that specific actions or policies might pose to human health or the environment, decisions must err on the side of caution. Lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to delay action to prevent harm, where a reasonable threat to health or the environment exists.”

This seems like a a sensible approach. And it is, in fact, the major reason that courts elsewhere in Canada have used to prevent the pesticide industry and its hangers’ on from suing municipalities and provincial governments for enacting bylaws that stop or regulate the use of cosmetic pesticides.

However, Mayor David Raven and the other Councillors present at the meeting — Chris Johnston, Phil Welock, Steve Bender and Tony Scarcella (Peter Frew was not present) — declined to support Halberstadt’s motion, which she introduced after the City received correspondence from two lobbyists for the pesticide and lawn-care industry.

The correspondence is interesting and misleading. One is a letter from something calling itself the Industry Task Force 2 on 2,4-D. It bears an Ottawa mailing address and is signed by a James W. Gray, its purported executive director. This so-called task force is based in Kansas City, Mo., and Gray is actually a lobbyist for Bayer CropScience, Aventis CropScience, Dupont Ag Products and other similar companies. (You can find out more about James W. Gray by going here.)

In his letter, Gray claims the Canadian Cancer Society says “2,4-D is a human carcinogen.” In fact the local newspaper report quoted in Gray’s letter does not contain such a quote. It says only that “numerous studies have liked (presumably the author meant linked) pesticide exposure to both adult and childhood cancers…” It does not specifically mention 2,4-D.

The second letter was directed to Revelstoke City Council and came from a Paul Visentin of Cranbrook who rather ham-handedly tried to intimidate Council by noting that charges have been filed against individuals in the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environmnet, the Ontario College of Family Physicians and Ontario Ministry of the Environment officials. In fact, this is not true. Lobbyists for the lawn-care industry, of which Visentin is a member (he owns the Cranbrook Lawn Doctor), have filed what is known as an information, not an actual charge. Criminal charges are always laid by Crown attorneys — not private individuals.

“I would encourage you to consider all sides of this issue before you make any enactments that could later be found ultra vires (acts beyong lawful authority),” Visentin threatened.

But municipalities already have the legal power to enact bylaws controlling or banning the application of chemical pesticides for cosmetic purposes.

The fight against cosmetic synthetic pesticides went public in 1991 when the town of Hudson, Que., became the first in North America to ban several forms of lawn and garden pesticides used to kill insects and weeds. The town was sued by two pesticide companies and on June 28, 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the town’s favor by a 9-0 vote. The Hudson example spurred many other municipalities and provinces in Canada to enact similar bans of pesticides. The Hudson case is the subject of a documentary movie titled A Chemical Reaction by filmmaker Brett Plymale.

Since that ruling was issued, 168 municipalities across Canada — including 31 here in BC (the province is considering a ban on cosmetic pesticides not dissimilar to that already enacted by the government of Ontario) have such bylaws. These bylaws typically ban or control the application of synthetic chemical pesticides for cosmetic purposes — not industrial or agricultural purposes.

This all sounds rather complex and some residents may wonder why it’s such a big hairy deal.

Well, earlier this year Council asked Public Works staff to look into the possibility of introducing a bylaw that would ban the use of chemical pesticides on both public and private land. They are supposed to come up with a draft bylaw at the end of the summer, after a public meeting is held to discuss the issue.

Here’s where the individual Councillors stand on the issue right now:

  • Councillor Chris Johnson has no problem banning their use on public land but is troubled by any bylaw that purports to tell people what they can or cannot do private property. (Why this should be so when many laws and bylaws already regulate or prohibit certain activities on private land is puzzling);
  • Councillor Tony Scarcella thinks 2,4-D is not a health hazard;
  • Halbertsatd wants synthetic pesticides banned;
  • Phil Welock says using synthetic pesticides makes him feel bad, physically, but he wouldn’t support Halberstadt’s motion;
  • Steve Bender does not appear to have a position on this issue — yet;
  • Peter Frew was not at the table for this discussion, and;
  • Mayor Raven has said he is skeptical about the claims by the Cancer Society and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

There are more than a few people in the local environmental movement who would be willing to accuse members of this Council as being fence-sitters.

Certainly, I found the stated reason for their unwillingness to embrace the precautionary principle curious — even unprecedented. In covering town and city Councils in Banff and Revelstoke since 1993 I have never — ever — heard seen a Council refuse to adopt a position because it “did not want to fetter a future Council.”

This Council must deal with the issues that come before it and make decisions that have meaning and positive benefit for the people who live here. Does their refusal to adopt the precautionary principle make them fence-sitters? I leave that to the readers and voters of Revelstoke to decide.

What I did find interesting and amusing, though, was Johnston’s asking me as I left the Council chamber if I would “castigate (City Councillors) for using weasel words.”

“I hadn’t planned on using that term, Chris,” I replied.

But now that you mention it…