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Weeds bloom with controversy

By Danielle Paine, Reminder Assistant Editor

To spray or not to spray, that is the question facing residents all over the state, and the topic of a debate between state officials and environmental groups.

Before 200 acres of grass growing between and beside major highways is sprayed with chemical herbicide in August and September, residents have a 45-day opportunity to voice their concerns to the State Department of Public Agricultural Resources. Once that window closes on Aug. 8, the department will review all submitted public opinions and then make a final decision regarding spraying this year.

A key motivation for both the environmental groups and the MassHighway Department is safety.

Erik Abell, spokesperson for the highway department, explained that spraying in these limited areas is much safer for state employees who would otherwise be exposed to the hazards of high-speed traffic while cutting weeds with hand-operated machines, the method used for weed control on the department's less than 50,000 acres of roadside flora.

Abell explained that the department applies herbicide on less than one half of one percent of all locations they treat, which he said, translates to less than 200 acres. Local areas being treated will include greenery surrounding Interstate 91 in Chicopee, Longmeadow, Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke and Easthampton, portions of Interstate 291 in Springfield and Chicopee; around Interstate 391 in Chicopee and Holyoke; and sections of Route 33 in Chicopee.

"We do try to apply herbicide in as responsible a manner as possible by not doing so in sensitive areas or when weather conditions would allow," Abell said. "In locations where there are high volumes of traffic or high speed traffic, to treat them by a mechanical method would involve shutting down sections of the roadways when the workers used weed whackers."

Rather than compromise employee safety, the department contracts licensed vendors to spray the herbicide from trucks at night, in good weather conditions, when traffic is at a minimum.

Prior to 2004, the state stopped spraying herbicide for several years because of the public's general concern of it's health effects. Then, a major incident illustrating their original concerns for highway worker's safety changed this policy and spraying resumed in 2004.

"Say for example there are weeds along a barrier. There has to be police detail or a work-site set up and there has been cases in which people have driven into the work-site and hit the police cruiser or work-site vehicle," Abell said.

The incidence Abell referred to occurred in 2002 when a police cruiser was hit while parked beside workers on manual weed-removal detail. The emergency vehicle that responded to the scene was also struck by a passing motorist. This prompted state officials to once again permit the use of herbicide on state highways, limited only to areas of high speeds and high volumes of traffic.

Still this logic has not soothed the troubled minds of environmental groups including the Toxics Action Center and Anti-Herbicide Coalition.

Ken Kipin of the coalition believes that the risk of toxic chemicals washing into nearby reservoirs and wells is the bigger safety concern.

"The kind of Roundup they use is Roundup Plus which is stronger than the one for residential use and they also use Oust, an herbicide that is extremely health hazardous and has been shown to cause birth defects," Kipen said.

He said Escort, another herbicide, is also used by the state.

"It is the way they're used that is the problem because the vendors that spray this stuff mix them all together and acting together they can be a lot more powerful, Kipen said.

Abell insisted that these chemicals are not mixed for state-highway usage.

"It is exactly like any other herbicide you would find at a home store and it is diluted with water," Abell said. "It proves to be an efficient and economical method to treat the vegetation."

In 2005 the state commissioned the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to research alternative and safer herbicides. Abell estimated the cost of this to be between $250,000 and $300,000. The results are expected to be released sometime this summer.

Kipin cited numerous reports in which he claimed Roundup, Oust and Escort contain dangerous chemicals that have been linked to Non-Hodgkins Disease, lymphoma, miscarriages, attention deficit disorders and other serious health problems.

He also listed instances in which road salt, used for de-icing had polluted drinking water sources. In 1998, he explained, the town of Ashfield came out against road salt because three homes had had their wells polluted.

"Our contention is based on road salt run off," Kipin said. "Road salt has polluted adjacent wells and reservoirs and if that's the case, herbicide may do the same. They are just as soluble as salt and we're afraid they're going to get in the drinking water."

The targeted areas being sprayed, particularly around guardrails concerns Kipin because of common drop-offs in elevation behind guardrails where water may collect in streams and possible travel into bigger bodies of water.

"There is a difference between road salt applications and herbicide application," Abell said. "Road salt is applied to the road as a whole and herbicide is applied only in targeted locations, not in sensitive areas. We're not spraying next to a body of water or reservoir. This is high traffic, high speed areas only."

The public's opportunity to voice their opinions begins on June 25 and ends on Aug. 8. During that time, comments are accepted and reviewed by the Department of Public Agricultural Resources. To submit an opinion on the issue, contact the Department of Public Agricultural Resources, 251 Causeway St., Suite 500, Boston, 02114.

Plans to spray are also reviewed by each community's conservation commissions for approval.