County Offers Trial Ban On Mosquito Spray

Environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough

As the Suffolk County Department of Health’s division of vector control began annual aerial application of methoprene, a mosquito larvicide, over salt marshes on the South Fork last week, a pilot program that would ban spraying over a study site next year began to take shape.

The East Hampton Town Trustees have long agitated for a ban on methoprene, which they argue is harmful to nontarget species, including lobsters, crabs, and fish. Suffolk officials have dismissed that claim, and the Legislature has consistently approved its use to control mosquitoes, which can carry West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and other diseases.

At the urging of commercial fishermen, Connecticut prohibited the use of methoprene in coastal areas in 2013. Fishermen and environmentalists in New York have long advocated a ban, and the East Hampton Town Board has repeatedly voiced its opposition to its use.

  Growing opposition on the South Fork to the large-scale use of chemicals, however, prompted county officials, including Tom Iwanejko, the director of vector control, to meet with the trustees and County Legislator Bridget Fleming in December. The result is a trial ban.

Should the county approve it, methoprene would not be applied to a study area starting next year and lasting for one to three years. The trustees are focusing on a portion of Accabonac Harbor and are seeking approval from adjacent property owners. They plan to engage a third party to collect data this year to determine methoprene’s effectiveness in controlling mosquito populations and its impact on nontarget species.

“There is real movement, for the first time, on the part of the county’s vector control,” Ms. Fleming, who represents the South Fork, Shelter Island, and part of Brookhaven, said on Tuesday. “There’s a recognition . . . that the goal of reducing or eliminating methoprene is a good and valid goal. But with public health in mind, it’s nothing that can happen overnight.”

Long before the trial is to begin, however, some activists have found fault with it and are pressing the trustees and the county to go further. Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O and the former Peconic Baykeeper, has been campaigning for a methoprene ban for a decade. At a trustees meeting on Monday, he warned that “Suffolk County will go to great lengths to not allow any meaningful science to come forward.” He cited research by Michael Horst, a scientist at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, among others, who have concluded that methoprene is deadly to nontarget species.

“I urge you, if there’s a no-spraying test, it is the entirety of the watershed,” Mr. McAllister said. “To try to partition off a section of a marsh . . . when you talk about drift, the complexities are just too much.” He predicted the trustees would not prevail in a scientific debate with the county. “Quite frankly, vector control, with respect to their program, bases their effectiveness and response to the number of phone calls that they receive relative to nuisance control,” he said.

If all of Accabonac Harbor became a methoprene-free zone, “I’m certain that, at the end of a summer, we’ll neither see incidents of disease or a notable increase in problems and phone calls,” Mr. McAllister said. “That’s based on this community’s connection to water resources and natural resources. That’s my recommendation to the board. I hope you take it into consideration as you start to tailor whatever review or study you’re considering.”

“We realize this project is minuscule,” Bill Taylor, a trustee, replied, “but we were in a situation where nothing was being done. After years of badgering vector control, we finally got them to move a little bit.”

Jim Grimes, Mr. Taylor’s colleague, agreed. “You’ve been at this a lot longer than we have,” he told Mr. McAllister, “so I can understand the level of impatience you have. But on our end, we asked for something, we did get some response. . . . I would think that we would do more damage to the case to turn around and walk away from that than we are by accepting it and moving forward.”

Francis Bock, the trustees’ clerk, said on Tuesday that, while Mr. McAllister’s criticism may be valid, “We should take what we have now. If it goes well we can either expand it, or take it somewhere else.”

Edwina von Gal, founder of the Perfect Earth Project, which promotes toxin-free lawns and landscapes, is also skeptical of the county’s motivation. “There are many land mines built into the way they offered this,” she said. “Basically, it’s created to fail. . . . There is no indication of what they want us to test for that would convince them that they should stop spraying, because they know there isn’t anything we could come up with that’s conclusive.”

She echoed Mr. McAllister’s complaint about the usefulness of a trial area. “They’re not agreeing to include all of Accabonac. That’s not a scientific study, there’s going to be drift. It should be Accabonac versus Napeague: one test site, one control. That makes it poor science from the start.”

Ms. von Gal referred to a petition, at the website change.org, urging the cessation of methoprene application over Napeague as well as Accabonac Harbor. The petition, which had 649 signatures yesterday morning, is directed to DuWayne Gregory, the Legislature’s presiding officer, as well as other officials.

Ms. Fleming called criticism of the proposed trial “unfortunate and premature. I would really urge folks to take a deep breath here and recognize we’re on the threshold of change. Even though it may be incremental change, it’s good stuff. . . .”

“Everything is pointing in the direction of moving toward the reduction or elimination of toxic spraying,” Ms. Fleming said, “and I feel confident that we’re going to get it done. It isn’t going to happen overnight; this is public health we’re talking about, but I do believe we can make real progress.”