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Oakland continues its struggle with appropriate pesticide use

Published on Thursday, May 09, 2013
2013 Pesticide Notice – Photo by Trevor Brown

The city of Oakland has won numerous awards for its environmental policies.

However, when it comes to sustainable landscaping, being green requires money and in this economic climate, Oakland doesn’t have much to work with. This conundrum recently became apparent when a North Oakland resident complained about the use of herbicides in a local greenway.

“After three years of telling us that we are on our own along the 51st Street greenbelt, the city of Oakland intends to dump Monsanto Ranger Pro on the greenbelt between Broadway and Telegraph” read the email.

“The last time this was done in 2008 it was a scorched earth policy. They simply killed all plant live below six,” it continued.

The email was sent by Trevor Brown, a member of the Lawton Court Homeowner’s Association, in response to notices placed in the area in mid-April of this year. According to Brown, these were the first notices that had been placed in the area since June of 2009, when the city put up signs to make it clear that they would not be maintaining the greenway.

If all this sounds a little convoluted, it may be because the city of Oakland’s Green policies are a mix of City Council referendums and assorted documents that date back more than a decade. In December 1997, the city adopted Resolution #73968, which spells out the initial “Integrated Pest Management” policies. In short, the resolution says that pesticides are not to be used except in specifically exempted areas such as swimming pools, golf courses, ball fields, bowling greens, the Oakland Museum of California and where they are required to preserve and/or protect human health.

Oakland continues to live in the shadow of California wildfires – both the ones burning now and the ones that devastated the city 25 years ago. In March 2005, City Council revised the policies in the 1997 resolution to allow the city to use herbicides (aka pesticides that target plants) to cut down on non-native (and highly flammable) species. This document calls out both Ranger Pro and the chemical ingredient in it – glyphosate – as appropriate for selective use, but only in the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District pending Environmental Review.

Broadway and 51st Street is several blocks outside of the Wildfire Assessment District.

In June 2011, the Council passed Ordinance #12950, which makes Civic Bay-Friendly Landscaping Guidelines into requirements for all city of Oakland, Redevelopment Agency and public-private partnership projects that include landscaping. These requirements don’t specifically prohibit the use of chemicals, but they do suggest minimizing their use in order to protect water and air quality.

The guidelines also suggest planting, irrigation, mulching and weeding techniques that can prevent weeds – and thus the need to destroy them with herbicides. However, all of these techniques require regular assessment and action by landscaping professionals.

According to Suzanne Ludlum, manager for the Oakland Schools Edible Garden program and permaculture landscaper, “The city has laid off a lot of people who used to work in Parks & Recreation, but it doesn’t mean that chemicals like Ranger Pro should be used. They are not a sustainable method for handling overgrown brush.”

Kristine Shaff, spokeswoman for Oakland’s Department of Public Works, says the city does what it can with only 25 percent of the workforce they had just five years ago. Staff and contractors all adhere to the referendums and Bay Friendly Landscaping tenets.

“We only use products that you do not have to have a respirator for. Not the most toxic,” Shaff clarifies. “Everything is tracked. Everything is stored safely.”

According to her, only certified and credentialed employees are allowed to handle pesticides. Trainings are held annually to make sure that all staff members are up-to-date with policies an procedures.

At the same time, some of the issues that concerned resident Trevor Brown, were created by an employee error. The signs alerting neighbors to the use of chemicals were placed both on the 51st Street Greenway and on green areas north of 51st between Lawton and Shafter. Shaff confirmed that these flyers should only have been placed on the Greenway and never on the green areas – which border residential properties where many pets live.

The signs specified pesticide use, yet Ranger Pro is a herbicide – used to kill plants not animals or insects. The EPA has classified Ranger Pro and it’s active ingredients as safe around rabbits and dogs. However, some environmentalists are concerned about it’s impact on cancer rates and those living with asthma.

Shaff mentions the Rose Garden as an example of what’s possible with an effective and green landscaping plan. She says no chemicals at all are used at that site and have not been for years. The mulch in the garden is created in a process of reuse – so that less items are going in the the waste stream in the first place.

As planned, the city did spray the 51st Street greenway, turning all the small plants and grasses into dead, dry, brown twigs. Before the spraying, Brown received a call from city employees and feels satisfied with their commitment to only treat the greenway. He and the other members of Lawton Court HOA pay landscaping costs to take care of both the greenbelt and the area north of 51st, as they have since 2009.

“If we want to change it, we have to start organizing,” Ludlum says. “If it’s the city’s land, then we should pitch in and help. Set up and fund summer youth programs to control the overgrowth.”
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