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Alaska Says Railroad Spraying Is Off Track

(Beyond Pesticides, March 6, 2007) In a victory for Alaska’s environmental community, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has denied the Alaska Railroad Corporation’s (ARRC) application to spray herbicides, citing water quality concerns. The decision effectively maintains a record of over 20 years of non-chemical vegetation management of Alaska’s railways.

ARRC submitted the application to spray herbicides last year to DEC. According to DEC’s documents, the proposed treatment area included approximately 500 miles of track and 100 miles of rail yard. The spray mixture proposed would have been comprised of three pesticide products: Razor Pro (active ingredient glyphosate*), Solution Water Soluble (dimethylamine salt of 2,4-D*), and Oust Extra (sulfometuron methyl and metsulfuron methyl). The mixture would have also contained the drift retardant Alenza (proprietary polyvinyl polymer). ARRC claims on its website it has “tried to control vegetation along its track with non-chemical methods including mechanical brush-cutting, manual labor, steam and burning since 1983. Despite these efforts, the volume and location of vegetation along the track has resulted in stiff fines from the Federal Railroad Administration, the railroad’s federal regulatory agency.”

Over one thousand written comments were filed with DEC, and oral testimony was given during the public participation process in response to ARRC’s application. Many of these commenters opposed the spraying because of the potential for environmental and health problems. Concern was voiced over, among other things, the potential for drinking water contamination, a lack of “inert” ingredient disclosure, and unknown effects of the chemical mixture. Opposed stakeholders pointed out non-chemical alternatives already exist. Comments also show stakeholders are concerned over potential economic costs involved in water monitoring, and for the salmon industry, tourism industry and farmers.

Several governments, tribal associations and environmental organizations opposed ARRC’s proposal. Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, told the Anchorage Daily News, “We felt the chemical mixture proposed by the railroad would harm water quality, salmon habitat and people’s health.”

DEC reports it reviewed and evaluated close to 100 studies before making the decision as well. The decision to deny the application was made on the grounds that 1) all three herbicide products are not allowed to be directly applied to water; 2) ARRC did not adequately identify all water resources in and adjacent to the proposed spray areas; 3) concerns were raised through public comment and inter-agency coordination regarding the possibility of water pollution; 4) the proposal may result in unreasonable adverse affect to environmental and human health; and 5) the ten-foot spray buffer zone proposed by ARRC is inadequate.

Tom Kluberton, who lives 200 feet from the railroad track and has a spring on his property, told Anchorage Daily News he “clicked his heels” when he ran back home to tell his wife that the state had rejected the herbicide proposal.

Ms. Miller says, “This is a big victory for people who have fought the railroad’s use of herbicides for several decades.”

Alaska’s railroad is just one example of vegetation management issues on rights-of-way. To learn more about how states can and have handled rights-of-way management, read “The Right Way To Vegetation Management” in Pesticides and You (pages 9-17).

Source: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Program, Anchorage Daily News

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