(Beyond Pesticides, August 20, 2007) Environmental groups launched a public campaign last Wednesday to urge state officials to stop applying toxic herbicides for vegetation control along state roadways. Members of the Massachusetts Coalition for Pesticide Reduction maintain that herbicides, which the state resumed using in 2003, are harmful to people and the environment.
Sylvia Broude, community organizer for Toxics Action Center, said toxic chemicals such as the ones the Highway Department uses can harm more than just the intended target. The chemicals can run off highways, pollute drinking water and eventually lead to health problems in humans, ranging from eye problems and learning disabilities to some forms of cancer, she said. The group is asking the state to use organic herbicides or manual means, such as weed whackers or lawnmowers, which the state used exclusively in the early 2000s.
But state officials say affected areas are in small, controlled environments. The Highway Department says that it removes unwanted bushes and weeds manually or mechanically on the vast majority of the 48,200 acres it maintains but needs the herbicides for about 188 acres, less than half of 1 percent of the total. Spokesman John Lamontagne said removing weeds mechanically in some of those areas would require closing down a lane of traffic and hiring a police detail to ensure the safety of workers and motorists.
The Coalition for Pesticide Reduction, which includes Toxics Action Center and Environment Massachusetts, asked the public yesterday to join their campaign against toxic roadside herbicides. “This year we wanted to launch a broader message so the state knows people are not behind this,” Ms. Broude said.
A dozen lawmakers signed on to the campaign, and several said the state should use nontoxic herbicides as a precautionary measure when manual removal is not feasible.
“I just think you can’t exercise too much caution,” said state Representative Sarah Peake, a Democrat who represents several towns on Cape Cod. “When I was a child, DDT was thought to be safe,” she said. “And now we know better.”
The environmental groups met with Bernard Cohen, the state’s secretary of transportation and construction, asking that he use other methods to control vegetation, but a spokesman with MassHighway said plans are underway to begin using the herbicides, including glyphosate-based Accord ® Concentrate and Oust ® Extra (active ingredients sulfometuron methyl and metsulfuron methyl), later this month.
The Highway Department is operating under a five-year vegetation management plan adopted in 2003. It is scheduled to draft a new five-year plan that will go into effect in 2008 and will include a strategy to control “invasive species” and “nuisance species” of “weeds” along highways.
Every year, millions of miles of roads, utility lines, railroad corridors and other types of rights-of-way (ROWs) are treated with herbicides to control the growth of unwanted plants. Massachusetts law prohibits the handling, mixing or loading of herbicide concentrate on a ROW within 100 feet of a sensitive area, one “in which public health, environmental or agricultural concerns warrant special protection to further minimize risks of unreasonable adverse effects,” and the application of herbicides by aircraft for the purpose of clearing or maintaining a ROW.
TAKE ACTION (NATIONAL): For more information on herbicide ROW policies and tools on how to organize for the adoption of such policies at the state or local level, please contact Beyond Pesticides by email [email protected] or call 202-543-5450.