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Coalition Halts Herbicide Use on Rights-of-Way on Cape Cod

(Beyond Pesticides, August 12, 2010) In an effort to convince NStar Electric and Gas Corporation to stop using herbicides on rights-of-way, like-minded environmental activists, citizen groups and business owners formed a coalition on Cape Cod: “Cape Cod for a Truly Green NSTAR.” Due to the increased pressure from local activists and residents, NStar made an agreement with regionally planning authority, Cape Cod Commission to postpone the use of herbicides on rights-of-way until 2011. The Commission reasoned that with more time, Cape towns could develop maps to identify areas and drinking water supplies more sensitive to herbicide use. Several organizations and business have signed on to the coalition in support of a ban on herbicides along rights-of-way, such as Clean Water Action, Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, and the Sierra Club (see the full list online).

Ever since NStar started using herbicides in 2004, local residents have worried about potential contamination of the Cape’s underground drinking water supply. Even though NStar has a “green” commitment statement on its website, pledging to lessen impacts to the environment as much as possible, the coalition argues that the company’s use of herbicides on rights-of-way violates this promise. NStar representative Michael Duran said that the herbicides are part of a state-regulated integrated vegetation management plan to help ensure reliable power to its 200,000 customers on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard.

“We know that NStar can manage without pesticides. They did for decades. For them it comes down to cost,” remarked Sylvia Broude of Toxics Action Center to the Cape Cod Times. Before 2004, NStar used effective non-chemical methods for controlling weeds along its rights-of-way, including mechanical cutting and hand-mowing.

Besides contaminating drinking water, many of the chemicals used by NStar have hazardous effects on humans, pets, and the environment, such as Fosamine ammonium, which EPA has found to cause kidney and liver damage, and could leach into groundwater. Triclopyr ester has been found to have effects on reproduction, the kidney and liver, and is toxic to fish. Studies have also shown that another chemical used by NStar called glyphosate causes cancer, reproductive effects, and is a neurotoxin.

Each year, millions of miles of roads, utility lines, railroad corridors and other types of rights-of-way are treated with herbicides to control the growth of unwanted plants. Unfortunately, drift from the application of these herbicides can negatively affect organic farmers and chemically sensitive residents. Rights-of-way include roads, utility lines, and railroad corridors, although different states have varying policies for maintaining rights-of-way. Recently, a utility company in North Carolina nearly destroyed one of the nation’s oldest and most famous vines, “Mother Vine,” when it accidentally sprayed a part of the plant while spraying the right-of-way.

Some states allow residents the right to refuse herbicide use on their property and people can post their property with no spraying signs provided by the utilities. For example, Maine, North Carolina, and Oregon all have no-spray agreements. If you are interested in becoming active in your community to stop spraying on rights-of-way or other public spaces such as parks and schools, please refer to our “Tools for Change” webpage and read The Right Way To Vegetation Management, which contains information about spraying policies along rights-of-way in different states.


6 Responses to “Coalition Halts Herbicide Use on Rights-of-Way on Cape Cod”

  1. 1
    Greg Says:

    ‘Mowing and hand-weeding’, now that’s a novel solution and an occupation that our young people will strive for.

    Too many ‘anti-pesticide’ people haven’t spent enough time ‘hand-weeding’, especially along right-of-ways. These are not your typical lawn and garden weeds that cause problems. ‘Weeds’ are defined as ‘plants out of place’. ROW weeds are primarily trees and other woody perennial plants. ‘Hand-weeding and mowing’…just further demonstrates that many don’t know what they’re talking about when they oppose the use of much more cost effective solutions.

    You’re correct when you say, ‘it’s all about costs’ in a broad sense, especially if ‘safety’ is included. If left to nature, the weeds (trees and woody perennials, not dandelions) would grow to a point to interrupt electrical power (most power outages are directly related to the impact of plant-utility wire interactions. Weeds also endanger human health, either through injuries that will occur while ‘hand-weeding and mowing’ or while struggling to restore lost electrical power. Keeping ROW’s clean and accessible is important to delivering consistent, reliable power. Timely use of herbicides, used according to the label, can be used to much less human and environmental detriment and at a much lower cost than ‘hand-weeding and mowing’.

    My suggestion is to go walk a ROW with your local utility company. Don’t forget your boots, long pants, snake bite kit, machete, and your dandelion knife for all of you weed pullers.

    It is about cost…increased utility rates and municipality taxes…and it’s about safety. ‘Hand-weeding and mowing’ is a cost effective and safer solution to managing the >15,000 miles of utility ROW in New York state, alone.

  2. 2
    Gladys Says:

    Well there is a report currently stating that young girls might be reaching puberty much earlier because chemicals and of course pesticides-What a shame!

  3. 3
    Alexandra Says:

    Thanks for reporting on the coalition. It is imperative that NStar give up their plan to spray herbicides under the power lines on Cape Cod. With what is known today about body burden and the effect low doses of toxic chemicals can have on health, spraying herbicides here would be eco-insanity.

  4. 4
    Beyond Pesticides Says:

    Greg- In addition to mechanical cutting and hand mowing there are many different management techniques and cultural practices that can be utilized to maintain ROW weeds. Some examples are:

    *Flame weeding machines or boiling water and high pressure steam work to kill weeds.

    *Biological controls, such as Goats. These herbivorous foragers that are very effective at controlling weeds since
    grass is their least desirable food choice. Many people now make a living by contracting themselves and their herd out for weed control around the nation. Read about this practice on our website by searching the article “Successfully Controlling Noxious Weeds with Goats.”

    *Less-toxic sprays such as horticultural vinegar, or acetic acid, or herbicidal soaps are also effective at killing certain weeds. These products penetrate the waxy coating on plant leaves, causing them to dry out. Though these are still toxic, they don’t cause many of the long term chronic health effects that are associated with many of the synthetic pesticides.

    The combination of using these mechanical, biological and nontoxic vegetation control methods, along with planting native plant species effectively reduces and eliminates the need for pesticide applications. Ultimately, creating and encouraging stable, low-maintenance vegetation is a more permanent vegetation management strategy than the constant application of toxic pesticides.

  5. 5
    Greg Says:

    Interesting discussion. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with and have no experience in using goats as a means of controlling herbaceous and perennial weeds/trees. Could imagine that goats might be fine with small, herbaceous weeds, but these are not primary ROW issues. (Wouldn’t want to be the consumer of that goat milk.)

    Using other solutions that just burn the leaves might be fine if you’re set up to do repeated applications throughout the growing season, but these are not solutions that would likely kill a tree without numerous applications over a couple/few years. Targeted use (not broadcasted where not needed) of effective herbicides that can translocate to the roots is the most cost effective (in the broadest sense) method for controlling woody perennials, which are the primary ROW issue.

    There is a place for a more sustainable approach to controlling ROW weeds that could combine both biogical and targeted pesticide use, when needed. The costs to do this will go up and the consumer (all of us) will ultimately see these costs either in higher utility bills or higher taxes.

  6. 6
    Lisa Says:

    I lived in New Hampshire when PSNH started using sheep to control weeds under power lines. Sheep or goats could be used on Cape Cod instead of pesticides that pose harmful effects to the environment.

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