Herbicides and the Right to Choose

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 10, 1998

The Bethel to Waterbury, Connecticut high-voltage power lines pass through part of our farm. The power company's easement was signed by the previous farmer, Joe Solar, back in the early 1900s. Every five years or so, the Connecticut Light and Power Company (CL&P), which owns the lines, contracts with a landscaping firm to manage the vegetation on its right-of-way.

CL&P and I agree on the necessity of keeping trees from growing into their transmission lines. We do, however, disagree strongly on their method of choice this year - spraying a chemical which kills all green plants. This will leave a 25-mile long scar of brown, dead vegetation about as wide as a football field. Today's toxic substances were unknown at the time the easement was granted.

The regional arborist visited us ahead of time because CL&P knows that we can't have any herbicides used on our organic farm, and that we don't want them to cut down the low-growing, decorative and edible plants on the right of way here. He couldn't tell me which herbicide will be used nearby, however, because the "as-yet-to-be-selected low-bid contractor" gets to choose its chemical weapons from a list provided by the power company.

That a low-bid contractor selects a chemical to spray across this region based solely on narrow economics is one very big problem. The contractor will choose an herbicide with a name like "Stalker®," or "Vanquish®." Its workers will spray up to 12 feet in the air from backpack tanks. Raspberries, blueberries, multiflora roses, autumn olives, hazelnuts, daisies, poison ivy and bittersweet - all will die. Very likely no distinctions will be made.

Herbicides are usually made up of one or more active ingredients, blended together with so-called "inert" ingredients. One likely active ingredient for this job, glyphosate, was created by Monsanto, the same corporation that developed PCBs. It thought that PCBs were safe, too. Last year, after six years of effort, the New York State Attorney General got Monsanto to agree to remove such phrases as "environmentally friendly" and "biodegradable" from ads for its version of glyphosate called Roundup®. In laboratory tests, the National Toxicology Program found that glyphosate has shown a wide spectrum of chronic toxicity. Between 1984 and 1990, glyphosate was the third most frequently reported cause of illness related to agricultural pesticide use in California.

According to its manufacturer, glyphosate herbicide can persist in the soil for more than four months and may drift up to 400 yards. That amount of drift on each side of the easement means that the zone of danger for sensitive plants is one-half-mile wide. Tomatoes, grapes and other backyard favorites are especially sensitive to this toxic substance. Herbicide residues were found in lettuce, carrots and barley planted one year after treatment.

Despite their name, inert ingredients can be even more dangerous than some active ones. Inerts, often kept secret, aren't even subject to the inadequate regulations and testing that active ingredients receive. A report just last month from the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides revealed that over one quarter of inerts are hazardous to public health and the environment. Some inerts are active ingredients in other products, too.

Last year, Consumer Reports revealed that one of Roundup®'s inert ingredients, polyoxyethyleneamine, is acutely toxic. It can cause adverse gastrointestinal and central nervous system effects, and damage red blood cells.

To have these questionable and dangerous chemicals sprayed across our towns, without notification except to a few who have made a fuss before, like us, doesn't seem just. Grass roots groups in North Carolina thought so, too. They just signed an agreement with utilities there that gives citizens the right to refuse herbicide spraying.

There are other ways to manage the easement's vegetation. CL&P's arborist has seen wildflower meadows maintained so that tree growth is inhibited. Removal of invasive species, encouragement of low-growing native fruit and nut-bearing plants, and more regular inspection and care could create a beautiful strip under the power lines which would actually be beneficial to wildlife and humans. Some at the power company even support this approach.

Unfortunately, when bottom-line decisions which don't include the environmental, health and aesthetic costs of herbicides, combine with uninformed citizens, low-bid contractors and poorly-paid, out-of-state workers, we end up with toxic ugliness.

If you don't want herbicides sprayed in your communities, call CL&P and your government representatives. Just say no!

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.