Environmental Groups Wary Of Herbicide Applications
By: Elise R. Hugus
On July 10 through 15 this year, a mixture of herbicides, surfactants, and wind drift retardants was sprayed by a company contracted by NStar along public rights of way.
According to NStar spokesman Michael P. Durand, a company contracted with the utility sprayed herbicides between its substation at Sam Turner Road in Hatchville to the border of Route 28. A map contained in the company’s yearly operational plan also showed that “touchups” had been done to two areas that had been sprayed in 2008: a route through the Salt Pond Areas Sanctuary from Oyster Pond Road and along the bike path until the NStar substation off Jones Road; another, on the right of way running parallel to Sandwich Road from Brick Kiln Road, across Coonamessett River just north of Flax Pond, and along Old Meetinghouse Road to the substation near the Crane Wildlife Management Refuge off Route 151.
In order to ensure the uninterrupted flow of electricity to its customers, NStar maintains the area under the power lines on public rights of way, targeting any tree or shrub that has an ability to grow to 12 feet. As part of the utility’s five-year integrated vegetation management plan (2008 to 2012), methods alternate between mechanical removal, and “selective” herbicide application.
“This is the process that we use to maintain transmission lines, based on a schedule to keep invasive species away. Rather than clearcutting, the area grows into a meadowlands environment,” Mr. Durand said, adding that certified herbicide handlers spray in accordance with environmental guidelines. “We’re one of the most regulated industries, in one of the most regulated states,” he added.
According to law, herbicides may not be sprayed within 25 feet of crop plants or pastures. Additionally, they may not be applied within 50 feet of wells, within 10 feet of standing surface water, or within 100 feet of a wetland or a public water supply.
Although approved by the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), local environmental groups say the herbicides have not been adequately studied for human and environmental safety.
For low-foliage application, the herbicides sprayed in Falmouth include Accord, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate; fosamine ammonium, known commercially as Krenite; metsulfuron-methyl, sold as Escort XP; and imazapyr, better known as Arsenal.
“It’s rather reckless, since not everything is known about the health and safety of herbicides,” said Susan Phelan, director of Green Cape Alliance for Pesticide Education (GreenCAPE). “As the years go by, more and more are taken off the market. There are definitely other approaches that can be used more safely and effectively.”
Since many of the chemicals used in herbicides existed before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed in the 1970s, Ms. Phelan said they were “grandfathered,” or allowed onto the market without rigorous study. Some of these chemicals, such as glyphosate, are currently up for review on the EPA’s hormonal disruptor screening list, due to effects that have been noted in animal sperm production after exposure to the chemical.
The studies that are done, Ms. Phelan said, are often conducted by the chemical manufacturer for the environmental authorities.
“The way pesticides are currently reviewed is really ancient, not taking into account new science and technology. They’re not forced to look at body systems, developmental and hormonal indicators,” Ms. Phelan said.
The risks associated with individual chemicals are compounded when the herbicide is manufactured, said Meredith Lee, the eastern Massachusetts community organizer for the Toxics Action Center.
“The studies are done based on the product’s active ingredient. But 99 percent of the actual product can be made of inert ingredients that don’t have to be labeled,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s a new step in the research world to think about a cocktail of chemicals, especially at sub-threshold levels. But when you combine them, it becomes a question of what that causes. There are a lot of unanswered questions and potential for risk.”
Pointing to studies of Roundup, an herbicide containing glyphosate and a surfactant, conducted at the University of Pittsburgh this year, Ms. Phelan said that the “cocktail effect” can cause even minute amounts of chemicals to have a big impact in the environment.
“This is how humans and animals experience pesticides. We get them from a number of different venues,” she said.
Another issue, Ms. Phelan said, is that studies conducted by the DAR do not reflect the sandy, clay-filled soil found on Cape Cod. Having seen a soil sample from Carver used by a DAR chemist, she said it was clear that the sample had “a lot more organic matter than we do.”
According to DAR studies, glyphosate is rapidly broken down by microbes in the soil, but the iron and aluminum-rich soil of the Northeast tends to absorb the chemical more readily than calcium or sodium-rich soil.
Ms. Phelan also pointed out that experts at the Lymphoma Foundation of America found an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages, and attention deficit disorder in people exposed to glyphosate and other weed killers, upon review of 117 independent studies from around the world. She added that glyphosate is being considered for a ban in Argentina. Even if the chemicals are approved by environmental agencies, Ms. Lee said, public notification laws should be improved so that residents within a mile of an application site have the option to “elect out” of a spray near their homes. Notices should be placed in public parks and swimming areas, she added, 48 hours before and after a spray. She said that alternative methods of vegetation management could also be used, such as spot treatment with organic herbicides, or using benthic matting to control invasive species.
Ms. Phelan said that residents’ opposition to herbicides does not mean that NStar and other utilities cannot clear the rights of way under the power lines.
“We’re focused on the same end. We just object to the methods they’re using,” she said. “People with a lot of energy are willing to put in the effort, and maybe even save them a lot of money. I don’t know why they wouldn’t sit down and talk with people about finding another way.”
Cheryl Osimo, the Cape Cod coordinator for the Silent Spring Institute and the communications director for the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, said she has been trying since this summer to have a talk with NStar about alternatives to pesticides. She said that efforts to use non-chemical methods to control vegetation on the Lower Cape point to a growing consciousness that could be used as a model for the rest of the state.
“Most Cape citizens are savvy about the dangers of chemicals. Even if they are not fully studied, the precautionary principle is in effect, which means we should look at a full range of alternatives,” she said.
Recalling the fate of DDT, lead, and asbestos, which were found to have serious health effects after decades of use, Ms. Osimo warned, “Once you apply a chemical, it’s too late to take it back.”
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