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Governor’s bill on mosquito spraying would override local control

A bill in the Legislature that would allow statewide spraying for mosquitoes has provoked opposition from several conservation groups and also from Harvard’s Board of Health.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed the bill, titled “An Act to Mitigate Arbovirus in the Commonwealth,” in mid-April, declaring it an emergency law that was immediately necessary. The term “arbovirus” refers to a group of viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks. In his message accompanying the bill, Baker expressed particular concern about Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile virus. In 2019, Massachusetts had a spike of 12 human cases of EEE, four of which were fatal.

The bill would allow the state mosquito control board to carry out control measures “across the Commonwealth, including in areas where there is not legislative authority to take action today.” Harvard is such an area, as it is not part of a mosquito control district. The state could initiate control measures whenever the commissioner of public health said there was an elevated arbovirus risk.

The state House of Representatives referred the bill to the joint Committee on Public Health with the Senate’s concurrence, and a hearing took place May 11, with written testimony allowed by email only.

The Harvard Board of Health opposed the bill in its current form, albeit too late for the May 11 hearing. In a letter dated May 14, the board expressed concern that the method of control in many areas would be roadside spraying, which board members believed would be ineffective in Harvard’s heavily wooded neighborhoods where houses are set far back on hammerhead lots. “We believe there are many communities, similar to ours, where roadside spraying will be ineffective and can provide a false sense of protection, leading residents to abandon their personal protection measures,” the board wrote.

The Harvard Conservation Commission did not itself discuss Baker’s bill. However, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions had expressed its opposition within a week of the bill’s filing. The MACC called the measure “a throwback to the 1950s when more chemical usage … [was] believed to be a good thing.” The MACC charged that the bill as written would override both the Pesticide Control Act and the Wetlands Protection Act, even in towns that had voted not to take part in “the antiquated system of mosquito districts.” The letter called for public notification before spraying takes place and confirmation that the chemicals used would not contain polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS). The letter also expressed concern about the effects of spraying on pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Mass Audubon expressed misgivings similar to those of the MACC, as did the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.

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