The Green Law Scare

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With most of the country covered in snow and gearing up for the holidays, far too little attention was paid this month to the Supreme Court's hearing of the lawn pesticide case. It also looked like a simple, even trivial, off-season issue. Do municipalities have the right to ban the use of pesticides by homeowners whose objective is strictly "cosmetic" a green lawn free of pests and weeds? But this is far from trivial. The pesticide case is actually a deep repository of legal and political trouble.

At its root, the case which pits Chemlawn and Spraytech against the Montreal suburb of Hudson is about whether politicians and bureaucrats have the power to regulate just about anything they want, regardless of whether there is any valid, known justification. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court briefs and debate focused mostly on technical legal issues, far above the messy political and ideological campaigns at the heart of the pesticide ban.

What the Supreme Court justices did not hear, for example, is that the environmental groups who appeared so earnestly before them as interveners are actually waging a rough and dishonest scare campaign at the municipal level. Hudson, and scores of other cities across Canada, are being terrorized into passing unnecessary and questionable by-laws to relieve non-existent risks. Rights are being trampled on.

The activist groups include the Sierra Club of Canada, the corporate-supported World Wildlife Fund Canada, and Nature Action Quebec. There is ample evidence these groups are distorting pesticide risks, to the point where they are misrepresenting the considered views of other, more responsible agencies. An example is the Dec. 8 letter from the Canadian Medical Association, effectively ordering the Sierra Club to stop claiming the CMA supports the group's alarmist cant on the risks of pesticides (see below).

The CMA was reacting to a Sierra Club of Calgary pamphlet, The Truth About Pesticides, which claimed the CMA was among a group of organizations that have expressed concern about potential serious health risks from pesticide exposure. The pamphlet included a caricature of a "lawn care person" as a skeletal grim reaper who has just exterminated a family pet with a lawn sprayer. Lawn pesticides were said to cause cancer, brain tumours, leukemia and other health problems.

The objective of the Calgary campaign, similar to others across North America, is to spook citizens into backing local bans on pesticide use and creation of a so-called pesticide-free world. "Write, e-mail, or phone your alderman," it says, to put Calgary at the forefront of the international effort.

Sierra Club misrepresentation of pesticide risk goes back years. The American Council on Science and Health in New York has frequently discredited Sierra Club claims. Elizabeth Whelan, head of the council, has mounted an extensive campaign against the pesticide-free world idea. Not only are pesticides safe when properly used, they also deliver great benefits, including better food supplies.

The New York group points out that the Calgary pamphlet contains another false alarm when it lists the American Cancer Society along with the CMA as a backer of Sierra Club views. The latest report from the Cancer Society actually goes out of its way to shoot down the scaremongers. "Public concern about environmental risks often focuses on risks for which no carcinogenicity has been proven or on situations where known carcinogen exposures are at such low levels that risks are negligible. For example: Pesticides."

None of this made it to the Supreme Court. The fact that the claims of the environmentalists, and the subsequent motivations of politicians and bureaucrats, were unfounded in science was not part of the case. Instead, lawyers representing the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund filled their briefs with legal arguments that assumed and implied real risks even though none exists in reality. They also dismissed green lawns as "cosmetic," unnecessary objectives, as if individual esthetic preferences were irrelevant. They called lawn spraying a "non-essential" use. Non-essential to whom? Not to lawn lovers.

What makes Chemlawn v. Hudson even more alarming is that it tempts the court into giving local governments power to regulate at whim. It would only be a short hop to the conclusion that cities could stop citizens from driving their cars for "non-essential" purposes. Another argument is that cities already impose regulations to control "nuisances" such as excessive noise. In the pesticide case, however, there is no risk, danger or nuisance except the scare fabricated by the activists.

The court was also asked to legalize random municipal law-making in the name of the "precautionary principle," the great legal loophole into which environmentalists plan to shoehorn most of the freedoms associated with a democracy. The right to property, the right to fair laws that have some basis in reality, the right to freedom from political and ideological whim all this and more was at stake in the attempt to regulate green lawns.