Flaws remain in Bill 2491, EIS a better first step

A newspaper serving an area such as our island has an outstanding opportunity to learn about the residents, businesses and governmental affairs of the area. Accordingly it is most fitting and proper for the paper, in addition to providing news, to offer its opinions as to important issues of concern to the citizens of the area.

In this spirit the publisher, editor and staff of The Garden Island offered their comments in “In Our View” column appearing on Oct. 13 under the caption “Try to find middle ground and then council must act” relating to Bill 2491, the measure seeking to regulate pesticides use and the  testing and use of genetically modified organisms.

The bill generated widespread interest and some heated dissension. The column suggested that the council  implement the mayor’s request to defer action on the bill for 60 days and allow a compromise on the terms of the bill “to create the unity on the bill the mayor believes is there.” There is much to be said for  the In Our View position, but there are some troubling issues that were not adequately addressed.

The mayor’s proposal was rejected by the council at its Oct. 15 meeting, when it adopted the bill as amended earlier by its committee by a 6 to 1 vote. In the course of its consideration, the council received a substantial amount of testimony from citizens who believed that pesticides were presenting hazards to our island  and believed that GMOs might. Regrettably, this testimony was accompanied with precious little  supporting scientific data. The bill itself only went so far as to say that GMOs “could disperse into the environment” and “could have environmental and economic impact.”

Those words are hardly a solid basis for imposing legislative sanctions.

One cross current to the mayor’s proposal lies in the County Charter. Similar to the federal structure, the charter provides for the council to have the legislative power of the county and the mayor to have executive powers. The mayor’s proposal would have amounted to an administration intervention in the legislative process not contemplated by the charter and it was properly rejected by the council. The mayor’s position as to Bill 2491 in seeking a seat at the legislative table is a wide variance from its stonewalling of the council in withholding data the council was requesting for its bill to regulate transient vacation rentals to the point that  some council members felt it necessary to use  charter investigative powers not previously used against a recalcitrant administration.

The amended bill with its eliminations and clarifications was a considerable improvement over the original, but some serious flaws remained.

It is a basic principle of legislation that it is better that each measure be limited to one subject. The topics of Bill 2491 were pesticides and GMOs. Each is discrete with no significant relation to the other. The result would have been more legally sound and administratively improved  with two bills.

The new law requires a significant amount of disclosure from firms that use more than a minimum of  pesticides and firms who test any GMOs. Territorial limits for use are imposed as to pesticides. These uneven requirements speak to the point that there should have been two separate bills.

It is also of concern that if pesticides and GMOs present hazards to our community, then they must to other communities and states in our country. If their use and testing require regulation, isn’t it more fitting that legislation arise at the state or federal level? Our governor and others seemed to think so. While I do not believe that the county should be considered preempted in its action by other law, I do believe that our lawmakers should have given this aspect greater attention.

When the council eliminated the moratorium provision regarding the testing of GMOs, the biggest threat to the legality of the bill may well have been removed. But the cumulative effect of the restraints enacted may well result in the initiation of litigation to nullify the law passed. As always, such litigation will be costly to taxpayers.

In my view, despite the considerable, sincere pressure on the council to act, it would have been better if the council took as its first step the promulgation of an Environmental Impact Statement study to provide some presumably objective data and determine the nature and extent of the perils created by pesticide use and GMO testing, and then endeavor to craft a law that would be responsive to the EIS findings. I continue to be  convinced that we have once again engaged in the unwise practice of “ready, fire, aim” rather than giving adequate thought to and obtaining information about the issues and then acting.

• Walter Lewis writes a regular column for The Garden Island.

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