Pesticide Debate

The trees are bare and the lawns are brown in picturesque Hudson, Que., an affluent community of 5,600 just west of Montreal. But weeds are a hot issue this week as Hudson's decade-old battle over the right to conquer dandelions with chemicals reaches the highest court in the land. Having failed to make their case in Quebec's courts, lawyers representing two lawn-care companies are asking the Supreme Court of Canada to rule that Hudson overstepped its authority in passing a 1991 bylaw forbidding the use of pesticides and herbicides on lawns. As the legal battle unfolded, dandelions flourished in the first Canadian municipality to adopt such a ban. The yellow patches they create each spring are a matter of civic pride for some residents. "I mean, this is nature," says June Penney, a gardening business owner who campaigned for the ban. "Dandelions grow."

Interest in the Supreme Court's decision, when it comes, stretches well beyond Hudson. Since 1991, about 40 municipalities in the Montreal area have followed its lead and dozens of communities across the country are pondering similar bylaws. Last summer, Halifax became Canada's first major city to pass bylaws banning lawn chemicals. The Sierra Club of Canada and 13 other interested groups obtained intervenor status, allowing them to present arguments during the day-long Ottawa hearing.

While arguments over pesticides inevitably touch on environmental and health issues, the Hudson dispute boils down to a matter of jurisdiction. The town's lawyer, Stéphane Brière, notes that Quebec's courts have agreed that Hudson has the power to pass such a bylaw under the provincial Cities and Towns Act, provided it falls in line with existing Canadian or Quebec laws. "It doesn't contravene any other legislation," insists Brire. Adds Hudson's mayor, Stephen Shaar: "If the community's standard is that they do not want the environment to be exposed to pesticides, that's their right."

The bylaw has allowed farmers and, with some restrictions, the town's two golf courses to continue spraying. Homeowners grappling with an infestation of weeds can also seek temporary dispensation. The two companies contesting the bylaw, Spraytech, which was bought this year by the Quebec company Groupe Vertdure, and Chemlawn, first went to court in 1993. Chemlawn's lawyer, Gérard Dugré, said he would argue this week that Hudson's bylaw contravenes existing Canadian and provincial legislation, including the federal Pest Control Products Act. "Once a controlled product is approved at the federal level," he says, "I don't think a municipality can prohibit me from using it." The town, Dugré adds, is also discriminating by allowing some people but not others to use pesticides.

Industry officials maintain that their use of chemicals has evolved to a less-is-more approach. Twenty-five years ago, the attitude was "it's May, the weeds are growing, go spray the lawn with weed control," says Ray Sharits, a Chemlawn vice-president. But now, he says, the standard is judicious use. As for health risks, the science is inconclusive. But several studies show links, for example, between pesticide exposure and a higher risk of childhood cancers. Sharits, however, says any health or environmental risk arising from using pesticides in their diluted form to spot-treat problems at certain times of the year is negligible.

Even as the Supreme Court considers Hudson's bylaw, the Quebec government is moving on another front. According to an industry spokesman, it is considering a pesticide management code that would prohibit municipalities from banning lawn chemicals. That would infuriate Penney, who feels Hudson accomplished something with its pioneering legislation. "I think we've really made a mark on the map," she says.

Maclean's December 11, 2000