Local activists were among those who packed a hearing Tuesday by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture about the chemical glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in herbicides like Roundup.
“The breadth of the state was represented,” said the Rev. Thaddeus “Thad” Bennett, of Conway, adding that testimonies at the State House were given from those living everywhere from the Berkshires to Cape Cod.
Bennett organized transportation for a handful of Ashfield residents, most of whom are part of the group People Against Toxic Herbicides (PATH). The Berkshire Environmental Action Team and Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) also organized Western Massachusetts residents to attend the hearing, Bennett said.
The hearing lasted over five hours with testimony from residents, activist groups, scientists and legislators. Testimony addressed 16 bills that range from banning glyphosate and other pesticides outright to limiting their use.
Attorney General Maura Healey and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, testified, as well as senior Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Dr. Stephanie Seneff, who has co-authored multiple scientific articles about the role glyphosate may play in human disease.
“We received, in a very short period of time, more than 100 emails and phone calls about Eversource’s spraying of glyphosate around utility poles,” Comerford said Wednesday, of why she and her staff were prompted to look into the issue last summer. Comerford said Eversource had permission to spray glyphosate and publicly posted the information with town municipalities.
“The bills heard (on Tuesday) were extraordinarily pragmatic,” Comerford said, citing three bills in particular: S.447 would allow each municipality to ban or adopt stricter standards of glyphosate and other pesticide use; S.499 would require state permits to apply glyphosate on public lands (like at parks, playgrounds, school buildings and on highway medians); and S. 463 would greatly restrict the use of a pesticide, neonicotinoid, which has been found by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contaminate pollen and nectar.
“We need science and unbiased science to tell us, ‘These are the options if we are to ban these chemicals,’” Comerford said Wednesday.
Comerford said a comprehensive approach would be necessary to transition away from glyphosate and other pesticides. She recommends a thorough review to update information that informs the state Department of Agricultural Resources, as well as to understand how glyphosate is being used and how its use could potentially be lessened.
Bennett said his testimony Tuesday highlighted two issues: how some of the scientific sources that the EPA uses to regulate glyphosate use were funded by companies that make it, and the millions of dollars that Bayer and its subsidiary Monsanto — which makes RoundUp — have paid for lobbying.
“‘Don’t trust the EPA,’” Bennett recalled saying.
For George Connell, Bennett’s husband, being in the hearing room and listening to testimony from a diverse crowd of people was moving.
“Overall, it was a really powerful experience,” Connell said.
Jody Hall, a member of PATH-Ashfield, who attended the hearing but did not testify, echoed Connell’s feelings.
“It was amazing, honestly. The room was packed, there was standing room only,” Hall said. “I just took notes as fast as I could, it all came thundering down.”
Hall said she was stuck by Julie Rawson’s personal testimony, where Rawson spoke of growing up on a farm that used pesticides and how she believes that exposure caused her lifelong thyroid problems.
Rawson, the executive director of NOFA Mass and farmer of Many Hands organic farm in Barre, explained Wednesday how herbicides negatively affect soil health.
“Herbicides kill the soil life,” Rawson said. “In order for plants to photosynthesize, we need soil microorganisms. … The pesticides kill all of those microorganisms and then the soil becomes dead, (leading to) problems with runoff (and) erosion.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Rawson said she heard three people speak in favor of a targeted use of glyphosate.
“The overall feeling in the room (was) that (people) want to end glyphosate in the state, and the issue became the process of doing that,” said Delta Carney of PATH-Ashfield. “I want to see a ban, but I think it needs to be phased out, so we can teach farmers who are using it to transition into better farming practices.”
Carney added that ceasing spraying on school property appeared to be “a no brainer.”
“I talked about the fact that our rights as citizens were usurped,” Carney said, meaning that with public utility companies spraying chemicals, citizens don’t have the ability to avoid being exposed to pesticides.
“We never got the chance to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to being exposed to them. That’s ridiculous,” Carney said.
Looking ahead, Carney knows that the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture can edit and rewrite the bills presented Tuesday, and no outcome is guaranteed. But she remains hopeful.
“I got the impression from the panel that they were very closely paying attention to what everyone was saying,” she said.
Reach Maureen O’Reilly at 413-772-0261, ext. 280 or