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Shoot out at the No-Spray Corral

It’s high noon for no-spray advocates, and they’re coming out with both barrels smoking.

On Monday, the hotly-contested issue of whether Island County will ditch the use of herbicides altogether in this year’s roadside maintenance program will be answered, as the county commissioners prepare to okay the purchase of what many residents deem to be pure poison.

Groups such as the Whidbey Island No-Spray Coalition are calling for nothing less than a “cold turkey” freeze on the county’s use of industrial herbicides such as the glysophate-based Roundup Pro, though such a move seems unlikely.

The board, as well as county engineers, have indicated that at the very most they are considering a slower phase-out of industrial chemicals, with the possibility of eliminating use sometime in the future. Public Works officials have already moved in that direction by eliminating Direx from the 2002 road budget, according to County Engineer Dick Snyder.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual, which won’t go over well with the folks who will testify to the commissioners on Monday.

Members of several citizen’s no-spray coalitions — some predict as many as 150 folks — plan on attending the board’s regular meeting in order to speak out. Judging from such meetings in the past, where chemically-injured islanders have given testimony donning gas masks, it’s sure to be a contentious and colorful confrontation. And, while not an official hearing, the commissioners have agreed to accommodate the crowd to a limited degree.

The annual purchase of herbicides by the Island County Public Works Dept. accounts for about $90,000 out of a total vegetation control budget of $685,000. The board is scheduled to approve the 2002 purchase of the herbicides Roundup Pro and Oust sometime after 10 a.m.

“We hope to pack the courthouse,” said WINS director Laurie Keith, who has been busy e-mailing facts, figures and notices of the meeting to just about everyone involved in the debate. “We still have a chance to get them to just say ‘no’ to spray,” she added. “All we need now is a simple decision by the commissioners.”

Over the past year, Keith has bombarded county officials and local newspapers with reams of strong scientific evidence attesting to the environmental dangers of herbicide use. There is no shortage of scientific testimony linking herbicide exposure with such diseases as non-Hodgkins lymphoma in human beings and reproductive dysfunction in salmon.

Lately, however, Keith has taken a different tact in arguing against spraying. WINS is now going straight for the county’s pocketbook, by attempting to prove that a switch to mowers and other non-chemical methods of vegetation control will pan out fiscally for the county as well.

To whit, WINS has been circulating figures comparing Island County’s vegetation control cost with that of two other Washington counties, Jefferson and Thurston, that have switched to no-spray road programs. According to these calculations, Island County’s vegetation control budget ($2,637 per mile) doubles that of either Jefferson ($1,735) or Thurston ($1,295).

“Since we pointed out the lower spending by the no spray counties, they really no longer have any good reason to continue the spraying,” Keith said on Thursday. “It looks to us like they’re overmaintaing the shoulders of county roads.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with these figures. At Monday’s board meeting, Commissioner Bill Thorn said the way WINS has broken down the relative road budgets amounts to “comparing apples and oranges.” Public Works Director Bill Oakes has also spent some time looking into the figures, which he feels don’t add up.

“I just flat out disagree with her numbers,” Oakes said on Thursday. “I think that’s where we probably have a difference.” Oakes added that if Island County switches to a no-spray policy, “The cost will certainly go up. We can debate how much it will go up.”

Engineering Assistant Desiree Welch did her own number crunching, comparing Island County’s road maintenance costs with other counties throughout the state, such as King Whatcom, Skagit and Jefferson. According to these calculations, Island County places near the bottom of the list in costs per mile, at $8,685.

King County’s cost per mile, for instance, is $16,075 and Thurston County’s is $11,090.

Regardless of a numbers war, Oakes said he is willing to work toward a reduction of how much spray the county uses.

“I think what I can commit to now is a reduction program,” Oakes said. “I’m interested in answering their concerns to the extent that I can, and I think we’re well on the road to reducing our use and curtailing our use.”

Keith doesn’t feel this goes far enough. She said that any type of reduction only increases herbicide resistance in plants, which causes road maintenance crews to use more of the stuff.

“If they just decide to reduce, then it will basically be business as usual as in the past years when they said reduce.”

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