May 30, 2003 - Seattle Post Intelligencer: Malawi RPCV Doug MacDonald heads Washington State DOT, wants "integrated pest management"
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May 30, 2003 - Seattle Post Intelligencer: Malawi RPCV Doug MacDonald heads Washington State DOT, wants "integrated pest management"
Malawi RPCV Doug MacDonald heads Washington State DOT, wants "integrated pest management"
Read and comment on this story from the Seattle Post Intelligencer on Malawi RPCV Doug MacDonald who wants "integrated pest management" in Washington State. MacDonald has a lot of experience in the area. He and his Peace Corps colleagues worked alongside farmers in Malawi, who were starting to use insecticides to protect cotton crops. Farmers earning the equivalent of $15 a year began making 10 times that. "That meant school fees. Two years of it meant a tin roof instead of a grass one," MacDonald said.
But later, after he left, yields dropped. And, because of careless handling of the DDT and carbaryl, water supplies were tainted. It was a formative experience for the man who would go on to spend nine years in charge of cleaning up badly polluted Boston Harbor. He says he has reinforced DOT's environmental consciousness since arriving two years ago. "We are not environmental Luddites or Attila the Hun with respect to environmental policies," he said. The mantra from MacDonald on down is "integrated pest management." That basically means using the right tool at the right time -- mowing when that will do, using herbicides when they are needed.
The Harvard-educated lawyer who heads Washington's 6,200-employee Department of Trasnportation realizes there are many things scientists don't understand about herbicides: Just how risky are they? Could they cause reproductive problems in people or other mammals? Fish? Frogs? TThe worst of it isn't what we know," he said in a recent interview. "It's what we don't know." Read the story at:
Activists want pesticide use on roadsides stopped*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Activists want pesticide use on roadsides stopped
But state defends method to keep weeds at bay
By LISA STIFFLER AND ROBERT McCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTERS
PORT ANGELES -- Tourists couldn't resist the Highway 112 turnout a short drive west of here -- a sparkling view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and bushes loaded with succulent blackberries.
Moms, dads and kids would pick handfuls of berries, pop them right into their mouths. An idyllic summer scene.
It gave one witness chills.
Josey Paul knew what the visitors last year didn't: Days before, a state road-maintenance crew had rolled slowly by in a truck, dousing the tangles of vines with a powerful herbicide.
"It was really horrible watching the people eating that," recalled Paul, a ponytailed former journalist who lives in the woods nearby. "It was really horrible having to stop and tell them. For a lot of people it was spoiling their fun, and I hated to do that."
Outraged, Paul and a small band of Clallam County activists took on the Washington Department of Transportation.
They argued that the agency's continued heavy use of weed-control chemicals ran counter to the local no-spray policy, putting people at risk. Tainted runoff could get into groundwater, and from there into wells. It could be harming salmon, undermining costly creek-restoration efforts, activists say.
DOT responded by launching a pilot program this month that curbs herbicide use in Clallam County, opting for more mowing and other weed-control methods instead. Spray crews are moving in the same direction in Jefferson and Island counties.
The agency, however, insists on continuing to use weed-killers -- even in Clallam and four other counties where concerned residents have persuaded county commissioners to stop local road crews from using the chemicals. A decade after setting out to significantly reduce its dependence on herbicides, DOT's use of the chemicals hit an eight-year high in 2002, according to an analysis of state records conducted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
DOT, responsible for maintaining more than 7,000 miles of state roads, applied more than 120,000 pounds of weed-killers last year -- enough to fill five dump trucks, and more than double the volume dispensed five years ago.
Compare that to neighboring British Columbia, where the amount of highway herbicides used each year could be hauled in the trunk of a sedan. And B.C.'s road system is four times as large as Washington's.
Herbicides, DOT officials say, provide a safe, cost-effective way to keep a 2- to 3-foot section beside the road clear of plants, which cuts road-repair costs and improves safety. Regular spraying also controls the spread of noxious weeds that pose their own environmental threats. Alternatives to spraying simply cost too much to be used everywhere, the officials contend.
Residents opposed to spraying cautiously support the state's experiment. But they have to wonder: Is the state really serious this time?
Cha Smith remembers DOT officials taking her out to Maple Valley one day to see roadsides the agency had started to maintain with little or no herbicide use. They looked great. More roads would follow, the officials said.
Smith, an activist with the Washington Toxics Coalition, was even invited to address a meeting of DOT maintenance managers.
"They had me give a talk about 'You guys are on the right track,' " Smith recalled. "I had guys meet me in the parking lot afterward, (and) say, 'Hey, thanks a lot. This stuff makes us sick, and thanks for hanging in there.' "
"This is a 180 turn-around for WSDOT in an apparent commitment to 'do the right thing,' " Smith wrote excitedly to supporters of her group.
That was 1993.
Today, Smith's replacement is battling the Transportation Department over the issue.
"It's a history of making a promise and not following through on it," said Angela Storey, the coalition's pesticides organizer.
In a pointed letter to DOT Secretary Doug MacDonald this month, eight state lawmakers slammed the agency for failing to live up to its "empty promise" of 1993. They called for an end to the use of herbicides in Washington's five no-spray counties with state roads: Clallam, Island, Jefferson, Snohomish and Thurston.
"They need to move ahead. This is serious business," said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Lacey. "If 10 years later they are just getting started, this is not enough."
Critics say it's a matter of leadership. And by that they can only mean one person: MacDonald.
'It's what we don't know'
For a guy who spent the late '60s in the Peace Corps, MacDonald is surprisingly practical.
Karen Ducey / P-I
Clallam County inmate Matthew Hall pulls roadside Scotch broom by hand and with a weed wrench. The volunteer chain gang is responsible for ridding Clallam roads of some 200,000 weeds a year. Inmates can earn time off their sentences in exchange for their volunteer work.
By necessity, the man who runs DOT is a big-picture person. But still, with a 6,200-employee department to run, a funding crisis and a prickly Legislature to grapple with, MacDonald is sweating the details of the weed-spraying controversy.
The Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up on Mercer Island realizes there are many things scientists don't understand about herbicides: Just how risky are they? Could they cause reproductive problems in people or other mammals? Fish? Frogs?
"The worst of it isn't what we know," he said in a recent interview. "It's what we don't know."
When the agency started getting letters from concerned citizens, midlevel managers found the hulking, sandy-haired MacDonald peering over their shoulders.
To understand why, it helps to know MacDonald's experience in Africa. He and his Peace Corps colleagues worked alongside farmers in Malawi, who were starting to use insecticides to protect cotton crops. Farmers earning the equivalent of $15 a year began making 10 times that.
"That meant school fees. Two years of it meant a tin roof instead of a grass one," MacDonald said.
But later, after he left, yields dropped. And, because of careless handling of the DDT and carbaryl, water supplies were tainted.
It was a formative experience for the man who would go on to spend nine years in charge of cleaning up badly polluted Boston Harbor. He says he has reinforced DOT's environmental consciousness since arriving two years ago.
"We are not environmental Luddites or Attila the Hun with respect to environmental policies," he said.
The mantra from MacDonald on down is "integrated pest management." That basically means using the right tool at the right time -- mowing when that will do, using herbicides when they are needed.
Over the past two decades, the application of this technique has helped transportation managers around the country reduce herbicide use.
California, for example, cut its use nearly in half in the '90s and is aiming for an 80 percent reduction by 2012. There, managers reduced or eliminated herbicide use in Northern California counties to abide by local no-spray policies.
Washington's DOT has been thought of as a leader in this integrated approach, and volumes of herbicides sprayed annually here dropped as low as 50,000 pounds of active ingredients in the '90s. Last year's total, however, approached the 130,000 pounds tallied in 1990.
Herbicides are particularly valuable in controlling noxious weeds -- "SARS to a farmer," MacDonald says.
Farmers have to control the weeds or face ruin. So must DOT, or they will spread from road shoulders to nearby fields. "These issues are not just about keeping the roads pretty," MacDonald says.
Karen Ducey / P-I
Tim Colson, a maintenance lead technician with the state Department of Transportation, hunts for noxious weeds along Interstate 90 near Issaquah.
Cost is the key issue, DOT officials say. Road crews mow weeds and trim brush statewide. But it's simply a lot cheaper to spray roadsides with chemicals once or twice a year than to control vegetation with more frequent mowing and occasionally scraping down the shoulders.
Agency officials point out that they saw budget cuts of about one-third in the 1995-97 funding cycle. Records show spraying declined during that period, then shot up again as funding levels picked up and crews played weed-control catch-up.
"We'd like to have been a little farther along after 10 years," acknowledges Enrico Baroga, DOT's maintenance program delivery manager. But, he insists, citing the Clallam County model, "We've really turned the corner."
For his part, MacDonald said he found the positions taken by some spraying advocates insensitive to the public.
He said he was recently asked, "What idiot would go eat blackberries at the side of the road?"
The man in charge of Washington's roads raised his hand.
"I've been doing it all my life," he said.
MacDonald describes the experiment in Clallam County as "very middle of the road. ... I think we're going to learn a lot.
"And it won't make everybody happy."
Parked on a dusty Clallam County road, Paul pulled a montage of color photos from the back of his truck.
One is a close-up of shriveled blackberries. Another shows patches of withered plants along a rocky beach. In a third, a fog of herbicide from a DOT truck mists a gravel shoulder on a tree-lined highway.
Since Paul learned DOT had sprayed the popular berry-picking spot last July, he's been sleuthing along state roads near his secluded home, collecting evidence of herbicide misuse.
DOT has repeatedly said its crews don't intentionally spray berries or waterways. But the images are Paul's smoking guns.
When Paul saw students out collecting litter on state roads, he dug even deeper. He obtained state records showing herbicides had been applied less than two weeks before students were out bagging pop cans and Styrofoam coolers.
One of those volunteers was Mike Sprague, a senior at Crescent Junior-Senior High School in Joyce. He's been collecting roadside trash for years, but wasn't aware of any potential risk.
"I never knew they were using pesticides," he said. "It's a little worrying that I could have gotten it on my clothes and gotten it inside (my house)."
Paul's crusade has won the support of residents and tribes, who worry about the long-term effects of the herbicides. Some travel easily through soil and can contaminate well water. In studies with lab animals, herbicides such as MCPA have been shown to harm reproduction, and diuron has been linked to developmental defects. Both chemicals are widely used by DOT.
Still, the community hasn't rallied en masse behind the cause. Many folks have faith in DOT.
"I'm sure they wouldn't do anything harmful," said Gretchen Harnack, a Joyce resident and mother of four.
But MacDonald calls the Clallam activists "my kind of zealots," a description that makes Paul wince.
Karen Ducey / P-I
Josey Paul of Twin tries to persuade officials at a public meeting that if counties can maintain roadsides without the use of herbicides, so can state crews.
In his signature fleece jacket and long gray ponytail trailing from his black baseball hat, the 55-year-old Paul speaks calmly about trigger-happy spray crews. Even when debating eight officials at once as he did at a recent DOT-sponsored public meeting, he's still inclined to crack a joke in a most unzealotlike manner.
"The way we've conducted this campaign is really not to rally people and get them all excited, but to have them look at the information," he said.
"We really do want a dialogue instead of a protest. We think the facts are on our side."
An unexpected victory
A gas mask on her face, toting her knitting, Theresa Gandhi trudged uphill to the chambers of the Island County Commission.
There, the stooped, gray-haired woman waited patiently for the public comment portion of the meeting. It was a weekly thing.
"OK, today we're going to talk about testicular atrophy, and salmon," she said at one meeting.
Gandhi and a small group of activists beseeched the commissioners to end herbicide use. They set up a booth at the county fair. They took the display to local libraries, gathered petition signatures, talked up the issue at the health food store.
And then something very unusual happened.
The activists won.
County Commissioner William "Mac" McDowell, who initially opposed them, explained the vote this way: "I thought it was not dangerous to the average person's health, but if the cost wasn't overly prohibitive, why resist? Most issues, you have people on both sides. On this issue, there wasn't anyone on the other side."
So last spring, Island County workers began maintaining the roadsides without the use of pesticides. It's too early to say how it's working. County officials expect the change to roughly double the annual roadside maintenance budget to about $340,000.
Despite DOT's vow to cut pesticide use in Island County, activists still aren't happy. They want spraying stopped completely and question DOT's true commitment. They point out that when the state recently widened state Road 525 near Greenbank, it missed a great opportunity to keep pesticide use low, mowing down native plants in favor of grass that is likely to be invaded by weeds and need spraying.
For her part, Gandhi can't walk to the county commission meetings any more. Because she is extraordinarily sensitive to chemicals and DOT continued to spray state Route 20 near her home in Coupeville, she had to move to a more remote spot.
The alternative: Pesticide-fueled dizziness, nausea, a rash, bloody diarrhea and a raging headache.
"I couldn't go down the state highway to the organic grocery store or go to the doctor without traveling a road that was sprayed," Gandhi explains. "That's mainly why I had to move."
'What the public wants'
The drizzle didn't slow the inmates dressed in orange -- pants, vests and caps emblazoned with "chain gang."
Under armed guard, the four men tirelessly yanked Scotch broom on a tree-lined roadside west of Port Angeles, pant legs muddied and ankle chains tinkling like wind chimes.
It's part of a multipronged attack on Clallam County weeds.
Crews drive mowers that slice long grass from sloping ditches and hillsides. Weed trimmers shave plants growing near guardrails and fire hydrants. A "weed wrench" wraps around shrubs, grabs them in a vice and pops them out, roots and all.
"It's what the public wants and that's who we're here to serve," said Richard Fowler, road maintenance supervisor for the county public works department. "No one's asked us to spray again."
There are also important ancillary benefits for the environment, most importantly better filtration of stormwater when polluted runoff flows off roads and through vegetation before it feeds into streams.
Officials in the no-spray counties say their programs work fine. The only trade-off is cost -- roughly double the old budget.
What would it cost DOT to do the job without herbicides in no-spray counties? After a first-year cost of $2.4 million that includes buying new equipment, it would be about $1 million a year, according to DOT's preliminary estimate. The agency's total roadside management budget was $11.8 million last year.
Activists question many aspects of the agency's estimates. For example, they point to the largest cost increase: using special heavy equipment to scrape vegetation from road edges. DOT says this would need to be done every three years. But no-spray counties go as long as seven years, the Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition wrote in a critique of DOT's cost comparisons.
The Clallam experiment using less herbicides will build in greater local control over where spraying occurs, state officials say. DOT crews have meticulously mapped vulnerable areas, such as streams and drinking wells. They're getting more instruction on noxious weeds and how to spray more precisely.
Some of the highlights of the plan:
# The gravel shoulder will not be sprayed in sensitive areas, such as school zones or within 60 feet of bodies of water, but will be mowed instead.
# In those sensitive areas, spot spraying of weeds will be allowed, but with extra care.
# Spraying of bushes and trees will no longer be done during spring and summer, but only in the fall after berries are dead.
# The use of MCPA will be ended. Diuron is banned from sensitive areas.
DOT crews recently toured Clallam highways with Paul. He pointed out spots that weren't marked as sensitive even though they abutted creeks that fed salmon streams.
"They have come a long, long way," the activist said, but he stopped short of victory.
"Their idea of a win-win is that we'll only spray you with half the pesticides we've been using," Paul said. He wants a plan that uses little or no herbicides, a "cutting-edge program" that could be a model for the nation.
"To me that's a win-win."
THE FIVE MOST USED CHEMICALS
Below are the herbicides most commonly used by state DOT. All but glyphosate are Tier 1 herbicides, the most hazardous and mobile in the environment. Glyphosate is ranked Tier 2. Totals are statewide for 2002.
Trade names: Karmex, Direx
Amount used: 38,300 pounds
What it does: Kills moss, broadleaf and grassy weeds
Risks: Likely carcinogen that can harm embryos in mammals; moderately toxic to fish; highly toxic to aquatic insects. Can last for months or years in soil.
Trade names: Vengeance, Veteran 720, Weedmaster, Vanquish
Amount used: 20,700 pounds
What it does: Kills broadleaf plants and brush
Risks: Dangerous eye and skin irritant; lasts for weeks in soil and is highly mobile.
*Dicamba is used alone or with MCPA or 2,4-D.
Trade name: Krovar
Amount used: 17,200 pounds
What it does: Kills broadleaf, brush and grassy weeds
Risks: Likely carcinogen; can be toxic to mammals, fish and insects; lasts for months in soil and is highly mobile.
Trade names: Weedar 64, Amine 4
Amount used: 14,000 pounds
What it does: Kills wide variety of broadleaf weeds; used on crops, aquatic weeds and residential yards
Risks: Dangerous eye and skin irritant; some reproductive effects; possible carcinogen and hormone disruptor; toxic to birds and fish and harmful to bees. Breaks down quickly in soil, but has been found in groundwater.
Trade names: Roundup, Rodeo
Amount used: 6,900 pounds
What it does: Kills all kinds of plants but can't be used until leaves are present
Risks: Low toxicity for mammals, fish, birds and bees. Can last for months in soil, but tends not to be mobile.
WHO TO CONTACT
For more information on roadside spraying, or to express your views call or e-mail:
# The Washington Legislature or Gov. Gary Locke: 800-562-6000 or www.wa.leg.gov
# The Washington Department of Transportation: 360-705-7000 or www.wsdot.wa.gov/commission/TellUsYourConcerns_CFMail.htm or www.wsdot.wa.gov/contact/feedback.htm
# For information on local herbicide use, call city or county departments of transportation and ask about their roadside maintenance program
# Washington Toxics Coalition: 206-632-1545, ext.11, or www.watoxics.org/pages/root.aspx
# Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition: email@example.com
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or firstname.lastname@example.org. P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or email@example.com
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