Herbicide spraying set for Cape, Vineyard

Feb 27, 2017

 

By Christine Legere

Thirteen towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard are scheduled for herbicide spraying beneath electric transmission lines this year to control invasive and tall-growing plant species this year.

The practice has historically drawn stiff opposition from the Cape’s elected officials, environmental groups and residents, who fear the herbicide’s chemicals could affect public health as well as the region’s fragile ecological system, if it remains in the soil or seeps into the aquifer.

The spray list recently submitted by Eversource Energy to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources for approval includes Barnstable, Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Dennis, Falmouth, Harwich, Orleans, Sandwich and Yarmouth, along with Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury on the Vineyard.

While the herbicide is applied sometime after Labor Day, the deadline to submit comments on Eversource’s plan for 2017 is March 27, and opponents have once again mobilized.

The Association to Preserve Cape Cod is putting together a statement opposing the herbicide application, said Executive Director Edward DeWitt.

“We’re concerned that the plan in general doesn’t offer a balanced approach to vegetation management,” DeWitt said.

There is also increasing evidence that Glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide set to be applied to leaves, stumps and bark by workers using backpack sprayers, is “more problematic in the environment than previously thought,” DeWitt said.

Glyphosate, found in the over-the-counter product Roundup, has been a source of much debate in the U.S. and Europe, particularly after the World Health Organization in 2015 said the chemical “probably” causes cancer.

Brewster, Orleans, Dennis and Eastham each pitched in $15,000 last summer to fund an effort to overturn the Department of Agriculture’s approval of the 2016 spray plan.

The towns used some of the money to file letters requesting an adjudicatory hearing in Boston as “aggrieved parties” to that approval. Part of the money went toward hiring expert witness John Stark, a scientist with extensive experience studying pesticides and a professor at Washington State University.

The state Department of Agricultural Resources filed a motion to dismiss, and attorney Bruce Taub, acting on behalf of the four Cape towns, filed an opposition to the motion.

“We are awaiting the magistrate’s decision,” Taub said Monday.

Even though 2016 is now over, Taub said the decision remains important because it would set a precedent.

Brewster’s town administrator called the fact that the hearing never occurred “amazing.”

“I think the Brewster Board of Selectmen will want to file letters on the 2017 plan, and I’ve contacted the other towns that were with us the last time,” said Town Administrator Michael Embury. “We haven’t spent all the money that was set aside.”

Even though the towns received no response to their hearing request last summer, the attempt appears to have met with some success. Brewster, Orleans and Dennis were all on the list for herbicide treatment in 2016, but no spraying was done.

“I think they didn’t spray because the request was ongoing,” Embury said.

Eversource spokesman Michael Durand said it is too early for the utility to say “concretely” what will happen this year in the towns seeking to overturn action by the state since the herbicide plan is still under review.

“With the comment period still open, we can’t speculate about what may or may not happen in those or any other towns,” Durand said.

A local environmental group called Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer has spearheaded the movement to block herbicide application on the Cape since the practice was restarted in 2013, after a four-year hiatus. The group has lobbied for mowing and pruning instead of applying herbicides.

Eversource counters that herbicide application is a friendlier approach to habitats in the area beneath transmission lines since it targets certain species, while mowing clears everything.

Laura Kelley, director of POCCA, said she anticipates the state Pesticide Board will ultimately deny the request from the towns to overturn the Department of Agricultural Resource’s approval of the herbicide plan. That’s all right with Kelley, who just wants the state to take that action so the towns can move forward and appeal the decision in court.

“That gets us before a third party that’s not a state agency,” Kelley said. “We want to get in front of a judge and settle this forever.”

State legislators for the Cape and Islands have meanwhile proposed a bill dealing with vegetation management under utility lines. Under the proposal, which has been turned over to the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, a utility would make available to communities an option to maintain rights of way without using pesticides. Under terms of the arrangement, the community could perform the vegetation control work according to standards agreed to with the public utility or it could contract it out to another company.

— Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @ChrisLegereCCT

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