Lawmakers backing pesticide restrictions poised to shape farm policy

SALEM — Lawmakers with strong track records of supporting pesticide restrictions are chairing two Senate committees that are positioned to affect Oregon agricultural policies in 2017.

Senate Bill 499 — a proposal to strip pesticide protections from Oregon’s “right to farm” law — was introduced at the behest of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chair is Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene.

Oregon’s “Right to Farm and Forest” law prohibits local ordinances restricting common farm practices as well as nuisance and trespass lawsuits against such farm practices.

People who lose such lawsuits are required to pay the opposing party’s attorney fees, which has discouraged such cases against farm practices from being filed in Oregon.

Under SB 499, however, complaints alleging nuisance or trespass from pesticides are exempted from the “right to farm” law.

The bill’s introduction at the request of the Senate Judiciary Committee bodes well for its chances for a vote before the full Senate, particularly since Prozanski has supported a harder line against pesticide usage.

In 2015, for example, Prozanski sponsored bills that would ban neonicotinoid insecticides and increase notification and reporting requirements for spraying pesticides.

All of those bills died in the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, which was then chaired by Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene.

Edwards left the Legislature last year to take a job at the University of Oregon, so Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, will replace him as chair of that committee.

Dembrow was a chief sponsor of legislation in 2015 — Senate Bill 613 — that would have increased notification requirements for aerial pesticide spraying of forestland, which died in committee.

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters gives Dembrow a 94 percent “lifetime score” based on his support of environmental legislation.

Scott Dahlman, policy director of the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group, said his organization hasn’t always seen “eye to eye” with Dembrow.

Even so, Dembrow is known for having an “open door” policy and will hopefully keep an open mind on issues affecting agriculture, Dahlman said.

Beyond Toxics, an environmental non-profit, believes Dembrow is the right choice to chair the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, though it’s too early to say how he might influence legislation, said Lisa Arkin, the group’s executive director.

Arkin said Oregon’s approach to pesticides in farming and forestry is “outdated and unscientific” and the state’s pesticide laws are overdue for reform.

In the Oregon House, the elimination of the Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water has created some uncertainty for legislation that affects agriculture, said Dahlman.

Bills that would have previously been steered to this committee will now likely wind up before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy and Environment Committee, he said.

The House Agriculture Committee is chaired by Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who is a part-owner of a farm and is familiar with agricultural issues, Dahlman said.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, isn’t as familiar with natural resource issues but there’s no reason to think he won’t be receptive to industry concerns, he said.

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