Outer Cape residents rail against NSTAR herbicide plans

Over 100 Cape Codders descend on the Eastham Town Hall to vent frustrations

Future of drinking water and ecosystems high among concern

   A panel including Sarah Peake (seated 4th from right), Cleon Turner (seated 3rd from right) and Robert O'Leary (seated far right) listened to the concerns of residents Wednesday night.

By Bethany Gibbons

More than 100 Eastham and Wellfleet residents gathered Wednesday night to vent their outrage and frustration over NSTAR Electric Company’s plans to treat 80 acres of vegetation under the power lines with a cocktail mixture of herbicides. Concerned about their drinking wells and the health of local fresh and saltwater systems, residents listened carefully to presentations from an arborist and chemist and waited for their chance to ask questions and voice their misgivings.

Political play

herbicideThe chemist from the DAR uses charts illustrating a "comparison with human health-based standards".

Despite valuable time spent responding to queries about the public comment period and protocol for notification, representatives from NSTAR and the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) avoided alerting attendees to the fact that work was slated to begin Monday. Senator Robert O’Leary and State Representative Sarah Peake both responded to a question about legal recourse to prevent the work. With full knowledge of the order to begin work within two working days, NSTAR representatives watched as State Representative Cleon Turner, the self-described “only lawyer on the panel” passed underlined notes to Sarah Peake detailing how the town could, as a ‘person’ aggrieved, bring a suit against NSTAR, after exhausting all other administrative options for remediation. Senator Robert O’Leary offered the idea of bringing a “home-rule petition” to the legislature, but admitted he didn’t see any way to stop the work.

Chemical breakdown courtesy of DAR

Chemist Hotze Wijnja, Phd, of the DAR’s division of Crop and Pest Services presented a study of herbicide toxicity and migration in soil, using soil in Carver, Mass. The Power Point presentation included information about the four herbicides intended for use, Arsenal (imazapyr), Accord (glyphohate -also known as Round-up), Escort (metsulfuron methyl) and Krenite (fosamine ammonium), while handouts provided by the DAR also included Garlon (triclopyr) and Oust (sulphuron methyl.) Winjna described the method of foliar application as low-dose, and showed that the migration of herbicide through the soil was very low, attributable to the organic content in the topsoil holding the chemicals until they degraded. His model used sandy soil with more shallow groundwater than exists in Eastham, without testing the substances on degraded or non-existent topsoil, which often occurs along the power lines as a result of pedestrian, bicycle, dirt bike and ATV use. He declared the results of his study “indicates minimal risk to human health and environment” and offered reassurance to the crowd, saying, “If these concentrations were to occur, you could drink this water for a lifetime without any ill-health effect,” to which the audience responded with gasps and boos. At the end of his presentation he provided more calming information, relating an anecdotal story of a lake treated for seven years with 10,000 to 100,000 times higher concentrations of the chemicals slated for use in Eastham. “The herbicide was used in the lake to control invasive species,” he said. “People can swim the pond the next day.”

A hugh step backward

herbicideSarah Peake (left), Cleon Turner (second from left) and Robert O'Leary (far right). Senator O'Leary's office announced Thursday night's info session on August 4th.

Selectwoman Aimee Eckman of Eastham spoke against the plan from the podium, saying the use of herbicides was “taking a huge step backward.” Met by thunderous applause, Eckman went on to explain that the EPA, in approving a pesticide, does not test for negative effects on the immune system, hormones, or interaction with prescription medicines. “They’ve been mowing for years,” she said, “and it seems to be working pretty well.”

Toxic vs. well-suited

Eastham chiropractor Paula Sperry questioned the science provided in the DAR handouts. “I gave up studying organic biochemistry a long time ago when I realized that you can make scientific research say anything you want,” she said. Sperry went on to question the DAR report on the metabolite of glyphosate, AMPA, which has a ‘slower degradation rate than glyphosate… possibly due to tighter binding in soil.’ The printed admission that ‘no data is available on the toxicity of this compound’ was particularly alarming to Sperry. A representative from the DAR responded that the reports are put together by scientists for the DAR. “No one here is saying these products are not toxic,” he said. “We’re saying they are well-suited to this use.” The statement was met by cries and exclamations from the audience.

Synergistic effects

herbicideA resident armed with pages of data addresses the panel.

Audience member Sandra Larsen of Eastham posed another hard-hitting, well-educated question for the panel when she asked about the synergistic effects of the herbicides. The DAR representative explained synergistic effects for the audience; “Substance A produces a mild rash, substance Z produces tingling in the skin, but exposure to both A and Z creates serious illness.” He went on to explain that scientist have no way of predicting the effects of combined exposure to the herbicides and countless ‘household’ chemicals, such as hair dye, insect repellant, flea and tick powder, cosmetics, prescription medications, et cetera.

Testing incomplete?

A gentleman who declined to identify himself held reams of printed studies and data when he rose to address the panel. He spoke of farm animal deaths, spontaneous abortions, unexpected findings of pesticides in fish and negative immune system effects – all allegedly stemming from exposure to glyphosate. He asked DAR chemist Winjna if the studies had been run using all four chemicals together, which is how NSTAR expected to use them, to which Winjna replied, “There is no testing on all four together – we rely on literature about the substances and other studies.”

A Wellfleet resident spoke about the lack of credibility of government agencies and utility companies. “35 years ago they sprayed the power lines in Wellfleet,” she said. “I asked them what they were using and if it was safe, and they assured me it was “perfectly safe.” I later called the hospital in Boston to ask if Dioxin was safe.” Several residents spoke about previous assurances that everything from DDT to lead paint was completely safe, only to find out years later that these substances were deadly toxins.

A question of credibility

Addressing the issue of credibility, DAR commissioner Scott Soares explained, “There is always research and opinions on both sides of every issue. If you listen to everything, you end up doing nothing.” Cheers erupted from the crowd and Soares was forced to reform his argument. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “I’d like to see a show of hands of anyone who doesn’t use any weed killer, any fertilizer, any bug spray.” Hands shot up around the auditorium and people angrily shouted, “Organic! I pull my weeds! Green living! That’s why I live here!” Soares abandoned his point and asked how many people support Nstar’s plan. When no one responded he said, “Well, you’re all against it, but there are probably plenty of people who don’t object to this work.” The audience shot back that he was wrong.

A possible reprieve?

30 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to end, at least a dozen hands remained in the air to be called on when moderator Patrick Cassidy from the Cape Cod Times ended the meeting, but several residents continued to shout comments and questions as the panel dispersed from their seats. WCAI reported on their blog that after the meeting, a resident asked when work was scheduled to begin. Shocked to discover the start date a few days away, an email campaign was started yesterday and a joint letter from the offices of O'Leary, Peake and Turner has been sent to NSTAR requesting that the herbicide program be suspended at this time.

According to NSTAR spokesman Michael Durand, "NSTAR discussed the possibility of suspending the use of herbicides in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans for a period of time to give town officials the opportunity to consider their options" during a meeting with the Cape legislative delegation Thursday.  Citing the importance of "maintaining transmission line rights-of-ways" for the "long-term reliability of electric service on the Cape," NSTAR is "willing to consider the request to begin doing some of the work without using herbicides," according to Durand. 

Information provided during the presentation suggested that application of herbicides was not the first order of business and that mowing, or mechanical clearing, would take place first, followed by application of herbicides to the seedlings emerging after the mowing.

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