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Suffolk County Passes Controversial Mosquito Plan, Officials Resign

(Beyond Pesticides, April 2, 2007) The Suffolk County Legislature approved a controversial mosquito control plan, 13-3, despite major objections from other county agencies, environmentalists, and members of Suffolk’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The eleven-member CEQ advises lawmakers on the environmental impact of proposed county projects and while their recommendations are non-binding, the Legislature has generally followed the group’s advice. Several members of CEQ resigned after the bill’s passage.

CEQ objects to the planned use of methoprene, an insecticide that interferes with larval growth. Objections were also raised over the county’s mosquito-control strategy of “ditching,” or altering wetlands to make artificial ponds where mosquito-eating fish thrive, a method they claim is unproven and harmful to the environment. Those objections, which CEQ passed in a split vote earlier this year, were ignored in the final approved plan. Members of CEQ also suggest that in the absence of pathogens like West Nile virus, the threshold for troublesome yet basically harmless mosquitoes should be raised.

Prior to the controversial vote by the County Legislature, towns within Suffolk County also opposed the methods. The East Hampton Town Board and town trustees passed resolutions urging the county to abstain from using methoprene. Southampton’s trustees urged that methoprene be used sparingly and asked that ditching be stopped within the borders of the town. East End towns, and the Peconic Baykeeper are also strongly opposed to continued insecticide spraying, and Larry Penny, East Hampton’s director of natural resources, among others, issued warnings that methoprene kills many benign invertebrates.

In July 2001, New York City banned the use of methoprene in areas where it would spread into wetlands and groundwater, because the chemical was found to interfere with metamorphosis in a number of organisms. Methoprene is very highly toxic to some species of freshwater, estuarine, and marine invertebrates. Suffolk County reportedly sprayed 4,000 of its 17,000 acres of tidal wetlands last year, but vowed to reduce the amount of spraying by 75 percent over 10 years.

A lawsuit filed by Peconic Baykeeper, part of the Riverkeeper environmental action network, against the county’s spray program, citing the Clean Water Act, is pending. The Baykeeper began filing lawsuits against the county over its spraying and ditching strategy in 2001. The following year, the Legislature itself required the vector control division’s long-term plans to be reviewed under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

“I saw it coming,” said Kevin McAllister, who holds the title of Peconic Baykeeper, of the decision. “I watched the program escalate with West Nile, and in 2000 I offered the Legislature a cautionary note, that I viewed the spraying and ditching as a serious threat to health of the bays.”

Four years after the 2001 suit was brought against the county, a State Supreme Court justice ruled in favor of Baykeeper. The suit charged that a thorough review had not been made. The county reversed the ruling on appeal, however.

According to Mr. McAllister, the Baykeeper has sued the State Department of Environmental Conservation on two other occasions because the agency issued permits for ditching and spraying in the absence of a proper review. Those suits became moot when the permits in question lapsed.

Mr. McAllister said on Tuesday that the Legislature had permitted no discussion of its advisory council’s concerns. “There was no representations that the chemical could be dangerous. It was completely glossed over. It’s outrageous.”

Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk, who voted against the bill stated, “It is not good that people get bit by mosquitoes, but we are a county with high rates of cancer and above the national average. We should be doing everything we can not to introduce toxins in the environment. Too often the Legislature says it is not going to put environmental concerns over health concerns, but this is a health concern.”

Seven New Yorkers died of West Nile virus in 1999 when the virus first emerged. There have been no reported deaths in Suffolk County.

Sources: East Hampton Star, Newsday


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