POLITICS

Pesticide use on farms is political hot potato on Prince Edward Island

09/11/2011 02:00 EDT | Updated 11/11/2011 05:12 EST
The use of pesticides on Prince Edward Island is an issue that probably won't be spoken about too often by politicians during the province's election campaign, except for members of the Green party as they push for tougher regulations.

Political scientist Peter McKenna of the University of Prince Edward Island says the Liberals and Conservatives want to steer clear of a fight with farmers before the Oct. 3 election, particularly Premier Robert Ghiz's Liberal party.

"A soft underbelly of Robert Ghiz's administration has always been the claim, rightly or wrongly, that he's not in touch with rural P.E.I.," McKenna said.

"The last thing that Robert Ghiz wants to do is to be seen as coming down against the farming community by putting into place something that they would probably perceive as hurting their interests and hurting their ability to maintain the family farm."

Questions about pesticide use surface a few times each year after heavy rains. Thousands of fish in rivers in western P.E.I. were killed after heavy rains in July. Two farmers were charged after traces of pesticides were found in nearby rivers.

The province's Environmental Protection Act mandates a 15-metre buffer zone between row crops — such as potatoes — and rivers or streams.

But Green Leader Sharon Labchuk argues that's not enough and she's convinced the government won't enact stricter rules.

"To tell the truth, I think they honestly believe that there's nothing wrong with an industry that kills fish and poisons people," she said in an interview.

Environment Minister Richard Brown defends what the Liberals have done to protect rivers and streams in the past four years.

"We increased the buffer zones next to rivers and streams, we've made agriculture put in headlands in order to avoid run-off and we also have a substantial budget going towards alternative farming methods," Brown said.

The province also banned the use of certain chemicals on lawns.

Labchuk has been pushing for the release of figures on pesticide use for the last two years. Brown said those figures are coming, but the department has been busy implementing the lawn chemical ban and ensuring the testing of wells and waterways across the Island.

"We have a number of wells throughout Prince Edward Island that we test each and every year," Brown said. "There have been over a thousand tests done in our water systems for pesticides and traces of pesticides."

The results are posted on the department's website.

McKenna said the issue isn't getting any traction for the Green party, whose showing in popularity polls has languished in the single digits along with the New Democrats.

"I don't think Islanders for the most part go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about pesticide use," he said.

Still, Labchuk said she will continue to raise the issue every chance she gets.

"We don't have a right to pollute the water and government has no right to tell us the levels of pollution are safe," she said.

The Conservative party declined comment on the issue.