Opponents vow to keep fighting county’s road spraying habits

A coalition of Whidbey Island citizens, many designating themselves as “chemically sensitive,” gathered at a Island County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday to demand a stop to the county’s current practice of spraying roadside vegetation with chemical compounds, which they deem harmful to human beings and the island’s ecosystem.

One after the other, individuals, many of them holding up respirator masks to signify their chemical sensitivity, testified before the board during the 15 minutes usually set aside for public input. The unscheduled gathering, during which commissioners heard 15 separate testimonies, lasted about 90 minutes.

Commissioner Bill Thorn called the impromptu meeting “a demonstration of democracy in action,” adding that he was a bit surprised by the magnitude of testimonies heard.

“I think it was a very substantial input that we got,” Thorn said. “We certainly are going to look at it very seriously, and have been for some time.”

Thorn added that he expects more dialogue to take place at the board’s meeting at 9 a.m. today.

Roads Supervisor Jack Taylor said that Island County government has approximately $685,000 included in its preliminary 2002 budget for vegetation control, a portion of which goes to spraying compounds as well as mowing, tree trimming and other expenses. The most recent numbers for county expenditures on chemical spray are from 2000, in which about $74,000 was apportioned, Taylor said.

“You all know me,” said Theresa Ghandi, the first of the coalition to speak Monday. She first professed her “outrage” that county commissioners have annually failed to act on what she declared as “the facts on converting to no spray.” In a voice choked with emotion, she accused the board of “malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance,” offenses she classified as justification for impeachment.

Ghandi, donning a red, white and blue tie and cowboy boots, claimed that lawyers had informed her that the commissioners could be included in a wrongful death suit pending her own autopsy.

People tell about travails

The various testimonies mixed personal anecdotes of the travails of chemical sensitivity with statements of scientific findings by various doctors and health experts. Beverly Graham, a musician currently residing on South Whidbey, gave arresting stories of her own challenges with a compromised immune system, saying that the county’s policy of spraying amounted to nothing less than bio-terrorism.

“I’m not a crack pot, and I’m not a fanatic, most of the time,” said Graham. “My rights as a human being to safe public access is denied to me every April through October through spraying.”

She called herself a “canary,” a reference to the age-old practice of sending birds into coal mines to test for poisonous gases.

The commissioners were presented with a petition with 1,275 signatures from Island County residents asking the county to cease immediately its current spray policy, along with a ream of other documents condemning the use of allegedly harmful chemical herbicides such as Roundup Pro, Oust and Direx.

Melinda and David Gladstone of South Whidbey, in a joint testimony, said that the county’s spray policy raises serious health, environmental, scientific and moral/ethical issues, the last of which they characterized as the Hamlet-like conundrum of “to spray or not to spray.”

“We view the seasonal, methodical spraying of pesticides as an act of terrorism right here on Whidbey Island,” said David Gladstone, who urged commissioners that “it’s time to step up to the plate.”

Clinton resident Tom Fisher, representing the Island County Citizens Growth Management Coalition, said that the county is running out of time when it comes to taking action. “There is no longer room for debate on this,” said Fisher.

Concern but no promises

At the end of the hearing, commissioners Thorn and Mac McDowell both expressed concern over certain individual testimonies. McDowell said he was touched by one woman’s story of being caught behind a spray truck, after which she suffered physical ailments.

“It was obviously very informative,” McDowell said of the testimonies, adding that “no question there’s a lot of people who are highly sensitive to chemicals.

“That group of people has a very strong and heartfelt feeling, and I certainly recognize that,” he said.

However, McDowell said that he questions changing current county policy for a segment of the population who are highly allergic. He added that there already exists a state list of individuals the county must notify any time it paves or sprays.

McDowell also said that until the science is deemed conclusive on the effects of chemical spraying, such demonstrations are more “politics” than anything else. On that basis, McDowell said officials are obliged to look at the spray policy in terms of financial impacts to the county.

“I think the jury’s still out on what we’re going to do,” he said.

Thorn said that the proliferations of chemicals in the atmosphere has long been a concern to him.

“I personally believe that there is a major concern here,” said Thorn, who added that any action the board might take regarding the use of herbicides and pesticides would nonetheless be founded in scientific fact rather than emotions and anecdotal evidence.

Laurie Keith, president of the Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition (WINS), said in a Tuesday interview that she takes exception to such science versus emotion arguments.

“I think that’s kind of an out of date way of looking at things,” Keith said about Thorn’s statements. She said that, often, hard data is questionable because it’s provided by “various sources that have an agenda.”

Despite such criticisms, Keith said she felt that the several testimonies made an impact on the commissioners., and they’ll keep spreading the word about possible dangers of chemical spraying.

“We’re going to be continuing with public outreach,” said Keith.

Keith said that the no-spray coalition plans on confronting the board of commissioners again during today’s staff session starting at 9 a.m., as well as next Monday at 1:30 p.m. Both meetings will take place at the County Annex in Coupeville.

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