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VPAC Urges Cooperation Between Railroad and Spraying Opponents

by Bob Nuner
At a meeting of the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council (VPAC) that reviews pesticide use and makes recommendations to the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) secretary, the conflict between industrial infrastructure management and pesticide opponents flowered. The crowded meeting held utility and railroad representatives, VPAC members, and spraying opponents who’d used media like Front Porch Forum to publicize the hearing. Infrastructure firms tasked with supplying power and transportation sought permit recommendations that would allow inexpensive vegetation control, while spraying opponents lobbied against chemical controls.
For utilities, vegetation control impacts not only reliability issues, but also the safety of crews that work during bad weather to restore the power upon which everyone depends. Rights-of-way pesticide permit requests represent hundreds and thousands of acres. States regulate what chemicals may be used, where they may be applied (how close to water bodies, etc.) and some regulate what level of training is required to spray which chemicals.
For railroads, the imperative to maintain rights-of-way includes not only safety and cost, but also federal transportation department regulation and control. Federal policy, maintained rail representatives, demands weed-free “ballast,” or stone beds that lie under track ties and rails, because organic matter (weeds, brush, etc.) holds moisture in the stone, thereby promoting rot in the ties. Vegetation on tracks, they averred, could result in slippage and even derailment on slopes, and was contrary to best practices.
Against that backdrop, however, are chemically-sensitive individuals, who can be sickened by the spraying, and drift, of herbicides. Barre Street resident Barbara Burnett, Granite Shed Lane office worker Michael Levine and a Charlotte spraying opponent questioned the persistence of chemicals in the soil after application and the effect of spraying on people and water supplies. A VPAC member pointed out that glyphosate-bearing herbicides (commercially known as Roundup) break down after 28 days, but an opponent noted that traces of glyphosate can be found worldwide and have been found in mothers’ breasts and their milk.
VPAC’s task, noted Board Chair Razelle Hoffman-Contois, is ultimately a risk assessment exercise with which no one will be fully satisfied. Public health advocates must confront the negatives, attendant with the benefits and conveniences of industrial society. Industry must consider more than maintenance costs. VPAC board members are tasked with informing themselves as best they can of the most current science, so they can recommend appropriate action to the agency’s secretary, who may or may not concur with their advice.
In this case, Hoffman-Contois and the board, seeking compromise, urged Washington County Railroad to work with advocates for non-chemical vegetation control. However, John Snell, a member of Montpelier’s tree board, while maintaining that “Roundup-related molecules are the most prevalent man-made molecules on the planet,” decried mechanical shredding of vegetation bordering the railroad as “atrocious,” arguing that human labor could do the job more effectively. Railroad and utility representatives, however, talked about costs. Central Vermont Public Service’s representative estimated mechanical right-of-way maintenance costs at quadruple the cost of selective chemical vegetation control, and suggested that ratepayers wouldn’t stand for that price differential if it resulted in rate increases. The recommendation going up to the secretary is that vegetative control be non-chemical for this year, from Pioneer Street to the I-89 underpass.
From the hearing, it seemed that electric utilities, more than the railroads, apply Integrated Vegetative Management (IVM) techniques, maintaining that IVM is not only less expensive, but results in more biodiversity, as opposed to undifferentiated mechanical cutting that leaves uniformly cut-over areas. IVM proponents say selective annual spot-spraying enables less total herbicide use (which has declined in volume applied in recent years). As part of IVM procedures, utilities manage rights-of-way to be more grassy and less woodsy, enabling them to use what they consider to be more benign chemicals, like the glyphosate-type compounds.
In Montpelier’s case, the recommendation from the VPAC for the Agency of Natural Resources secretary is that Washington County Railroad, for this year, not spray, even with just the glyphosate compounds, but work with interested parties to control vegetation by other means. They requested feedback from the railroad on what alternative strategies might be viable, and encouraged them to work with interested parties like the city’s tree board. They’ll also ask utilities and railroads for annual pesticide use trend data.
As the meeting concluded, a VPAC member noted the irony that while they ask Vermont’s utilities to use fewer pesticides, retail shelves are loaded with chemicals awaiting easy purchase, requiring no environmental control.
Following the meeting, “The State’s Pesticide Advisory Council added a restriction to the railroad’’s application which designates most of Montpelier’s right-of-way as a ‘no-spray’ zone,” stated a posting on Front Porch Forum by Barbara Burnett. The railroad will now explore more environmentally friendly alternatives for removing weeds from the track area and will be encouraging community involvement going forward. Sign up for your neighborhood’s Front Porch Forum to stay up to date.