Across the Cape, residents are saying “nay to the spray.”
Since last spring, when the electric utility company NStar agreed to a yearlong moratorium on spraying herbicides under Cape Cod power lines, citizens have been quietly preparing to make that moratorium permanent.
Over the last month, boards of selectmen in nine towns from Wellfleet to Barnstable adopted a nonbinding resolution, drafted by the Eastham town administrator, calling on NStar to use chemical-free methods of controlling vegetation under public rights-of-way.
Now, Upper Cape selectmen are being asked to join the resolution, as part of an initiative coordinated by Green Cape Alliance for Pesticide Education (CAPE), a nonprofit group based in Barnstable.
Earlier this month, East Falmouth resident Janet M. Kluever started circulating a petition around her neighborhood and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth.
Once she had 50 signatures, last week Kluever brought the petition and a letter requesting a hearing before Falmouth selectmen.
“We don’t need any more chemicals in the groundwater,” said Kluever, who said she learned her lesson about the importance of protecting groundwater after a plume from the Massachusetts Military Reservation contaminated her drinking well.
Though the resolution is nonbinding, she said it could pressure NStar to listen to citizens who are concerned about the potential for herbicides to leach into the Cape’s sole-source aquifer, with possibly damaging effects on public health and the environment.
With the moratorium on NStar’s herbicide use set to expire on January 1, 2011, Kluever knows that the clock is ticking to get the board of selectmen to hear her case for supporting the resolution.
According to Brent V.W. Putnam, chairman of the Falmouth board of selectmen, the issue should be taken up at the selectmen’s meeting on December 20.
Susan Phelan, director of GreenCAPE, defined the resolution as “just a statement, a request.” It would not require towns to change any regulations or pay any money, or even ban the use of pesticides, she said. Instead, the resolution would encourage NStar to return to a vegetation management strategy it used prior to 2004.
“We’re requesting NStar to abandon its chemical plan and return to selective cutting and mowing. They’ve done that before. They know how to do it,” Phelan said.
Vegetation and power lines do not mix
By law, NStar is required to clear the rights-of-way under the power lines in order to safeguard the electric grid.
The utility’s five-year integrated vegetation management plan, typically submitted to each town’s conservation department, states that any plant with an ability to grow 12 feet or higher will be targeted for removal, alternating between mowing and herbicide applications.
- In Falmouth, vegetation that is not within certain distance of a body of water or drinking water supply will be sprayed by a licensed applicator with a mixture of herbicides, surfactants, and wind drift retardants, according to the management plan for that town, valid from 2008 to 2012.
- For low-foliage application, the herbicides include Accord, which contains the active ingredient glyphosate; fosamine ammonium, known commercially as Krenite; metsulfuron-methyl, sold as Escort XP; and imazapyr, better known as Arsenal.
According to NStar spokesman Michael P. Durand, these herbicides are approved for application in sensitive areas by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR).
“This integrated vegetation management approach is widely recognized around the country as the best way to ensure reliable energy delivery while at the same time promoting the growth of beneficial native plants,” he said.
Asked whether using herbicides is less expensive for the company than mechanical removal, Durand said that herbicides require less frequent application than cutting and mowing.
“Will that lead to a reduced cost for right-of-way maintenance? Likely. That’s a benefit to everybody,” he said.
“If we can do this in an environmentally friendly way and reduce the cost to our customers, it’s a win-win [situation],” he said.
An infinite moratorium?
In April, NStar agreed to a 12-month moratorium at the urging of MDAR and the Cape Cod Commission. The commission spent the rest of the year incorporating GIS information into maps of rights-of-way where NStar has easements, to include sensitive ecological areas, open bodies of water, and drinking water supplies.
Phelan said this initiative is “inadequate” to protect the Cape’s drinking water supplies.
“We should always have mapping in place, but for contaminants we’re not aware of. Here, we can proactively remove these chemicals to begin with by simply not spraying,” she said.
Acknowledging that municipalities cannot ban pesticides considered legal by the state or federal government, Phelan said that towns and citizens still have the right to decide how and where those chemicals are used. All too often, she said, town departments sign off on the utility’s plans without considering the potential impacts.
“When push comes to shove, they’re approving these plans and justifying their approval. Last year, they just signed off without reading them,” she said.
“It goes all the way to the federal government, which registers the herbicides in the first place without complete information about their health effects, then it comes down to state and local agencies.”
Mowing the ‘preferred method’
In a best-case scenario, Phelan said NStar would take the approach used by Boston Edison, the previous electric utility serving Cape Cod, which she said exclusively used mechanical methods to remove vegetation.
Northeast Utilities, a Connecticut-based company that announced a pending merger with NStar in October, also allows communities and property owners to “opt out” of herbicide applications, Phelan said.
“It’s time for NStar to reconsider their stance on this,” she said.
Durand said NStar is currently working out a compromise with the Cape Cod Commission, GreenCAPE, and state authorities, and will submit its yearly operational plans to each town this winter. He said herbicide applications will not take place before the leaves come out in the spring.
Upper Cape response
Two weeks ago, the Sandwich Board of Selectmen voted not to support the resolution, saying it had no authority to ban the use of herbicides.
Mashpee Water District Operations Manager Andrew G. Marks said this week he disapproves of herbicide use on the NStar right-of-way because it is too close to the district’s six public wells.
“We don’t think that spraying in an area under the influence of a public water supply is a good idea at all,” Mr. Marks said, explaining that the power lines are in a “zone two,” in relation to the wells, a designation that indicates pollution can more easily reach a water supply than if it is outside that zone.
NStar would treat with herbicides its 2.5-mile right-of-way in Mashpee in 2013 at the earliest, according to Durand. A 1982 Mashpee Board of Health bylaw forbade the use of herbicides to clear rights-of-way, but local rules like this do not apply to the company, which follows state standards, Mr. Durand said.
An NStar representative was supposed to speak to the Mashpee Conservation Commission next Thursday to explain the company’s brush clearing techniques, but the meeting has been postponed and no new date has been scheduled.