Chemical ban

How many cases of West Nile disease constitute an emergency? Must there be deaths? What is the value to the city of Durango and its residents of a green, weed-free golf course? How many weeds and pests can a soccer field support before the games get dangerous? And how much more are city taxpayers willing to pay to say the city is chemical free?

Unless the supporters of a proposal to manage city land without chemical fertilizers or pesticides can answer questions like those they should withdraw their proposed ordinance. It would be unfair to city residents to force the city to spend thousands of dollars on an election simply to make a statement.

The group behind the chemical ban submitted 511 signatures supporting it, which is more than the required 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last municipal election. Under the City Charter, the City Council now has two choices. It can enact the ordinance as written or put it on the November ballot. The council can neither dismiss nor amend the ordinance.

Given that it appears council members rightly think this is a bad idea, putting it before the voters seems likely. The chances of its passage are slim, but city officials estimate that vote will nonetheless cost city taxpayers as much as $19,000.

Were it to pass, however, the costs would be far greater. The city estimates the cost of weeding and fertilizing city parks would go from less than $35,000 per year to more than $237,000. Keeping other city-managed lands weed-free now costs about $8,000 per year. Enact the chemical ban and the cost is estimated to be more than $76,000. (State law requires the city to control noxious weeds.)

And that is just dollars and cents. Chemical pesticides are assumed both to be harmful and to be more harmful than the alternatives. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good” or “healthy.” Mosquitoes are natural, too.

West Nile disease in only one of the diseases spread by mosquitoes. An outbreak in Texas has infected at least 230 people and so far killed 10. Officials in Dallas ordered aerial spraying to kill mosquitoes – something not done since the 1960s.

Durango’s proposed ordinance permits the use of insecticides in the event of a public-health emergency. But why wait until someone dies?

Supporters of the chemical ban have failed to identify the problem they think needs to be solved. It has been 50 years since the book Silent Spring detailed the environmental destruction caused by pesticides such as DDT. No one today slathers on dangerous chemicals with abandon. On city lands, herbicides and pesticides are applied only by state licensed contractors using products approved by the Environment Protection Agency.

Still, chemicals evoke concern. But before burdening city taxpayers with a costly new ordinance, those worried about chemical exposure should talk to the city about its procedures and how best to limit the use of chemicals and any danger they pose. They could begin the conversation by withdrawing this proposed ordinance.

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