County fights back on road spray debate

Whidbey Island resident Theresa Gandhi protected herself from chemicals during a commissioners
Whidbey Island resident Theresa Gandhi protected herself from chemicals during a commissioners' hearing last week.
— image credit: Ken George

For the second time in a week, a group of Whidbey Island residents confronted Island County officials to air their concerns about the county’s current policy of spraying roadside weeds with what they deem harmful industrial pesticides.

However, unlike Monday’s board of commissioners meeting when more than a dozen proponents of “no-spray” veritably hijacked official proceedings with an hour and a half of emotional testimony, Wednesday’s staff session was a relatively controlled affair, with various county officials attempting to throw a scientific wrench in claims that spraying causes any adverse health affects.

“There’s nothing in the data that we can find to indicate that this is an environmental or a health issue,” said Health Director Tim McDonald in regards to the county’s use of such chemical sprays as Crossbow, Direx 4L and Round-up Pro. He noted that, to date, there has been no detection of pesticides in any water systems tested throughout Island County.

McDonald also countered previous claims by no-spray advocates that incidences of cancer and other diseases are rising in Island County due specifically to the county’s spray policy.

“There’s no high incidence of chronic disease or cancer in Island County,” said McDonald, comparing rates to both state and federal averages. He did concede that there might be a higher rate of breast cancer among women, though he suggested that such data might be attributed to current “early detection” programs sponsored by health departments.

Don Meehan of the Washington State University Co-operative Extension read a lengthy statement in which he urged “paying attention to the science rather than the scientists.” He also warned that, when it comes to both no-spray proponents and the companies which produce such chemicals, “both sides go overboard way to often” in their arguments.

“Now I am not foolish enough to think that all decisions made by public decision makers are based on solid evidence,” Meehan said. “But it seems to me that decision makers have a responsibility to seek out and understand reliable scientific evidence to guide their decisions."

At one point, Meehan appeared to refute those who condemn the proliferation of chemicals in the environment by stating that “everything around us, including us, is made up of chemicals.

“What can you say to someone that says, ‘We have got to quit exposing our families and kids to chemicals’?” Meehan asked. “I don’t have a clue of what to say. Nothing is appropriate because the situation posed is so absurd.”

Laurie Keith, president of the Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition (WINS), later refuted Meehan’s claims by drawing a distinction between naturally occurring chemicals and those that are synthetically manufactured, saying that “we have to take a step back and look at the big picture.”

In an interview on Friday, WINS vice president Lori O’Neal argued that she has been forthright in providing the commissioners scientific data proving that herbicides and pesticides are deleterious to human immune systems. “All of them have asked for hard data,” said O’Neal. “We have supplied that.”

Among the documents offered by O’Neal were an EPA manual on pesticides and toxic substances as well as a manual regarding pesticides and national strategy for the EPA, the US Dept. of Agriculture, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services and the Dept. of Labor as published by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

Keith said that when it comes to certain chemical pesticide and herbicide combinations “there’s a big unknown,” and urged commissioners to keep in mind a thing called the “precautionary principle.”

“Given that we can’t know it all,” Keith said, “we need to act with caution.”

She went on to say that, if the county were to adopt an alternative system to chemical spray, everyone could find themselves in a “win-win” situation.

As for alternative methods to spraying roadside weeds, Public Works Director Bill Oakes gave a brief presentation on his recent investigations into means of vegetation control that could potentially be used by the county. Besides mowing and extended paving of shoulders, Oakes presented information on the use of heat machines, which he labeled the “most interesting” of the lot.

Heat control of weeds involves industrial machinery that essentially irons weeds with a high-level of heat, thereby destroying the stalks and seeds. Oakes added, however, that “there’s not a lot of local experience” using such a method.

Commissioner Mike Shelton, who temporarily took over as board chairman for Commissioner Bill Thorn who left to help certify the recent election, said that when it comes to the county’s policy of vegetation control, he was concerned with balancing the interest of no-spray advocates against other sectors of the public.

“As much as I want to protect the chemically-sensitive, I also want to protect the motoring public,” said Shelton, a reference to the potential dangers of road shoulders that are poorly paved or overgrown with vegetation.

Shelton closed the hour-and-a-half dialogue with this statement on the commissioners’ behalf: “We will make a decision, obviously, before we move forward to next year’s spray season.”

No-spray advocates, including Keith and WINS vice-president Lori O’Neal, said that they plan on attending Monday’s board meeting at the County Annex in Coupeville in order to further testify during the time set aside for public input at 1:30 pm.

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