NStar wants to use herbicides on their rights of way, like this, in order to control vegetation.
January is likely to mark the end of the careful truce between energy company NStar and Cape environmental groups, as the “gentlemen’s agreement,” a two-year moratorium on herbicide spraying along power lines, is lifted.
The issue is not a new one – NStar is required by law to keep its rights of way clear in order to prevent damage to electrical wires. Vegetation-free ROWs also allow the lines to be quickly accessed and serviced. NStar wants the assistance of herbicides. Environmental groups don’t want to risk it.
Recently, a group called Cape Cod for a Truly Green NStar started sending non-binding resolutions to each town on Cape Cod, asking selectmen and town councilors to sign it, pledging pesticide-free policies. Most towns, including Barnstable and Yarmouth, have signed it. The group hopes the resolutions will give NStar further pause.
Not to sprayThe biggest weapon environmental groups have is the fear of poisoned drinking water.
“Anything that ends in ‘cide’ is suspect,” said Sandra Larsen of GreenCAPE, which educates the public about pesticide use. “The aquifer lens is just really vulnerable. It doesn’t take much of a margin of error to get into a lot of trouble.”
She’s talking about the Cape’s sole source aquifer, which has been on the minds of voters and politicians during ongoing discussions of wastewater. It has been portrayed as a unique and widespread drinking water source for and beneath Cape Cod. It appears to act like a sponge, absorbing anything placed into the ground, from septic system waste to herbicide chemicals. When the Yarmouth selectmen signed the no-spray resolution Tuesday night, Selectwoman Suzanne McAuliffe noted that NStar promised not to spray near wellheads.
“If you can’t spray in these areas, then how benign is it?” queried McAuliffe.
Despite NStar’s claim that the chemicals are approved by the state for use even in “sensitive” areas, environmental groups are wary. They believe, along with Silent Spring Institute, that government standards are not sufficient. There are two arguments: science has not advanced far enough to thoroughly vet the chemicals and that the state holds chemicals to an “innocent until proven guilty” standard.
“The regulations that are supposed to protect us just aren’t doing the job,” said Larsen, who became interested in stopping pesticides after her children became sick from pesticides, meant to kill caterpillars, that blew onto her property years ago.
The chemical metsulfuron methyl, commercially known as Escort, is proposed to be one of the herbicides used. Escort is relatively new to the market. Though the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources places the chemical in its list of approved herbicides, it adds that the available data and studies were provided solely by the company that created it.
Another chemical, imazapyr, is noted as having gone through “few studies which have investigated the mobility of imazapyr in soil.”
“We know that all of these pesticides are toxic. These pesticides can have real, human health impacts,” said Silvia Broade, of the Toxic Action Center, a public health and environmental nonprofit group. “There’s just no backup drinking water source. These herbicides, like all pesticides, are designed to kill.”
To sprayWhile environmental groups accuse NStar of acting solely in the interest of money, the energy company cites other motives, like protection of animal and plant life.
“The herbicides NStar uses are more environmentally sensitive than many of those used every day by homeowners and in other commercial applications across the Cape,” said NStar spokesman Michael Durand. “In a recent Silent Spring study that tested for herbicides in Cape groundwater, none were found.”
Science supports NStar’s claim, too. State studies on glysophate, one of the chemicals to be used, found that it had “less irritant potential” than Ivory dishwashing liquid. While the commercial product of glysophate, Roundup, is quite toxic, the herbicide used by NStar doesn’t use the surfactant that makes it so. The state also catalogs cancer and genetic studies on each chemical, none of which find substantial evidence of danger.
On the other hand, a five-year plan on vegetation control, put out by NStar, explains the environmental danger of continued mowing and cutting.
“Herbicide applications can be much less destructive than mowing to nesting sites and the vegetation necessary for food and cover,” says the report, of protecting local wildlife, for which the ROWs can act as safe corridors against development. On natural plant life, “The scarification of the soil surface [by large mowing equipment] also creates a potential seedbed for … various invasive species.”
Mechanical controls also necessitate, over time, more and more cutting. Cut stumps, says NStar, grow faster and stronger with each slice, a technique used by firewood vendors for decades.
The plan suggests using a combination of chemical and mechanical methods to create a third agent NStar says it hopes to rely on in coming years – natural control. If “selective” herbicide sprays can be used, natural plants, which control invasives, can be retained.