Remember the NStar herbicide spraying controversy?
It’s been out of the headlines since NStar agreed to a one-year moratorium on spraying herbicides to control vegetation (trees) beneath its Cape Cod right-of-ways. But the moratorium expires in January and spraying could commence this spring.
In the meantime, the Barnstable County Ad Hoc Committee on Risk Analysis Vegetation Management has been meeting in the basement attempt to devise short-term and and long-range recommendations to reduce or eliminate herbicide use.
The 18-member committee, which met last Friday, includes state Rep. Sarah Peake, County Commissioner Sheila Lyons, NStar representatives, the Department of Agricultural Resources, the country extension service, spraying opponents and other officials.
One idea the group has kicked around is doing on-Cape studies, under the right of way to test for pesticide contamination in the ground water. Previous studies of the chemical that are proposed were done off-Cape in a wetland environment.
“We keep hearing our soil is more porous and that it’s easier to have drift (from wind), but so far we’re just dealing with anecdotal evidence. I’d like to have real results,” Peake said. “For us to make an informed decision we need to have more data that people have confidence in. Without that data I don’t see how we can make any decision.”
Cape Cod Commission has been conducting well monitoring for several towns.
“Using the resources we have in hand, the DAR lab does this type of analysis, we could look at identifying monitoring wells and help coordinate a ground water monitoring study on the outer Cape,” explained Tom Cambereri, a hydro-geologist with the commission. “A number of those wells are suitably located near right-of-ways. I’m thinking there are a dozen to 20 wells that do reach water supplies in the proximity of right-of-ways. The monitoring program would begin this spring.”
But that is an after the fact approach.
“That’s trying to put the string back into the ball at that point in time,” Peake noted. “In the pharmaceutical industry they do small peer group studies and then continue to do studies once (the drug) gets into the general population.”
She was thinking more of preliminary test study.
“There are basically two different studies here,” noted Lee Cort-Real, director of the Division of Crop and Pest Services for the state. “One is looking at monitoring under controlled conditions. The other is a post review of potential impacts. Certainly post-application and ground water monitoring in towns should be good information and it’s also relatively inexpensive since the wells are already there.”
“Eastham has had two years free from spraying,” reflected Lyons, who chairs the committee. “Now we could be taking a baseline test on the monitoring wells in Eastham. We have to keep in mind there are many culprits and we may find things in the water but it is identifying the source and connecting to that source that is a problem.”
“In many cases there are many more years than two,” added Dennis Galvam of NStar. “Only a handful of towns were treated (two years ago).”
Over the past month NStar and the DAR spoke about precautions and why those pesticides were approved for use. Last Friday it was the turn for spray-foes.
“We will perhaps not be able to find the effects of such herbicides with the existing tools we have in science,” observed Dr. Kamaru Sidhartha, a specialist in internal medicine. “Human cells do their best to metabolically break down chemicals and in the process harmful byproducts are released. That can set the stage for diseases like cancer.”
He also cited the off-Cape study that tracked herbicides through wetland soil
“Hence the results may not be applied to (the sandy soils of) Cape Cod,” he noted. “I urge you to give (my patients) a fighting chance to keep good health by avoiding the potential risk from herbicides that could get into the ground water.”
“The regulatory basis for preventing human health effects is limiting exposure,” countered Hotze Wijnja of the Massachusetts Division of Agricultural Resources. “Has the doctor any evidence pesticides used on Cape Cod have affected the health of some of your patients? Cells have to be exposed to chemicals before that have those effects.”
Wijnja cited a recent Silent Spring sturdy that tested for herbicides in Cape groundwater. None were found in the ground water, but other chemicals were detected, he said.
“The most disturbing thing was the statement from the good doctor saying science today doesn’t have the technology to identify these problems, because if that’s the case, what are we bothering with?” wondered Leo Cakounes of the Cape and Islands Farm Bureau. “We should be banning everything.”
But Sue Phelan of Green Cape cited numerous studies linking herbicides and surfactants on NStar’s approved list with cancer, asthma, birth defects, endocrine disruption, liver damage and learning disabilities.
“There are reams of scientific evidence to support concern about this NStar plan but I’m sure this decision, to switch to herbicides, was not a scientific but an economic one,” she declared. “They are forcing our community to play a kind of chemical roulette.”
“In a USGS survey pesticides were found in almost every freshwater stream and there were more than five pesticides in half the streams,” Phelan added.. “Wildlife and endangered species near right-of-ways are inadequately protected.”
And Cape Cod is even more defenseless.
“Sand is our major line of defense protecting us from NStar’s herbicides on their way to the aquifer,” Phelan said. “78 percent of municipal well zones on Cape are impacted by NStar.”
The herbicides NStar will use, such as Glyphosate, aren’t mobile in the water column but their persistence varies with soil conditions. Cambereri has tested for pesticides before.
“We may find some at detectable levels in the ground water but at what level and where is it from? We’re doing pesticide monitoring on golf courses on Cape and we do see some residuals in the ground water,” he conceded.
Phelan looked back to the days of DDT.
“The regulators didn’t protect us then and they’re not protecting us now,” she concluded. “The right-of ways aren’t owned by NStar. People play on them and garden on them.”