Spray foes win

Opponents of roadside herbicide spraying pack the Island County Commissioners’ meeting on Monday.  - Rick Levin
Opponents of roadside herbicide spraying pack the Island County Commissioners’ meeting on Monday.
— image credit: Rick Levin

April Fool’s Day 2002 will be remembered as the moment “No Spray” signs became an artifact of Island County’s past.

In a bold and unexpected move, the board of commissioners voted Monday to stop all use of chemical herbicides in the county’s roadside maintenance program — a decision that drew raucous cheers from the 100-plus no-spray advocates on hand to witness the historic event.

Island County now joins Jefferson, Thurston, Clallam, San Juan and Snohomish as the only counties in the state to forego the use of herbicides and pesticides in roadside maintenance.

Packing the room to near capacity, the crowd represented a cross-section of citizens who have lobbied long and hard against the county’s chemical spray policy: Young and old, students and retirees, hippies, yippies, physicians, women in gas masks and even someone toting a real live canary, symbolic of the age-old “canary in a coal mine” test used by miners to detect deadly underground gases.

Lately, these coalitions have really put the screws to county officials, pressuring the board with letters, emails and a public outpouring of local support.

Lori O’Neal, head of the Whidbey Island Chemically-Injured Network, described the board’s decision as a miracle.

“It’s just a huge day for Island County,” O’Neal said Tuesday morning, adding that she hadn’t expect a complete stop to spraying. “It’s been a long time coming,” she added. “The timing is incredible. It felt like democracy today.”

Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which has been advocating a no-spray policy since 1985, was similarly overjoyed.

“I’m floating,” he said. “We made various attempts over the years, but nothing took off until this year. I think it’s huge. It was a social issue whose time has come.”

Laurie Keith, possibly the most influential voice of late in her work with the Whidbey Island No-Spray Coalition, said that she is feeling “really inspired and positive” by the board’s decision.

“It’s just uplifting for all of us to see that citizen action can be heard and responded to,” Keith said. “It was the sheer volume that did it. It really kind of turned around in the last couple of weeks here. There’s a lot of smart, educated people from all different sides of the spectrum speaking out.”

The board’s unanimous vote scrapped a 2002 purchase order for $27,632.37 in herbicides that in itself represented a significant reduction from the $90,000 spent on chemical sprays last year.

In submitting the purchase order for board approval, Public Works Director Bill Oakes said that if the board decided to go no-spray, county crews could feasibly maintain roadside vegetation “with mechanical means” such as mowers. Oakes’ statement sent a palpable thrill through the crowd.

“I’ll support the decision of the board,” Oakes said on Tuesday. “We’ll have to figure out what to do, but we will maintain a safe roadway.”

Right now, Oakes said, his department is looking into ways of maintaining vegetation through the use of existing staff working with new mechanical equipment. He has received estimates for shoulder mowers at $44,000 each; it’s possible the county will purchase 4 of these machines, one for each road shop. Currently they don’t have the proper equipment to mow shoulders.

Oakes said there is also the matter of disposing of the county’s existing surplus of herbicides. He has talked to a manufacturer who is willing to take back the unopened herbicides in return for credit, though Oakes is still figuring out what to do with already open canisters.

For now, Oakes said, he will be spending the next week or so figuring out all the logistics of the county’s switch to a no-spray policy.

Commissioner Bill Thorn, who made the motion to discontinue for good the use of industrial herbicides in Island County, said that he has always had great empathy for the no-spray movement.

“It’s been my position consistently that we should stop spraying,” Thorn said. “The general proliferation of chemicals in the environment is not a good thing.”

Commissioner Mac McDowell, in explaining his position on the issue, invoked the role of government. Although not convinced that herbicides are dangerous, McDowell said that it is the job of commissioners to “represent the public,” and that in this instance the sentiments of citizens are clearly against spraying.

“I’m going to be supportive of doing what the lion’s share of the public would like is to do, which is stop spraying,” McDowell said, adding that “the only downside I see is the cost.”

McDowell said his mind was finally made up when he visited Jefferson County last week, a county whose no-spray policy has been invoked often as a goad to for Island County to make the change. He said that he hadn’t realized that no-spray counties simply allow grass to grow on road shoulders. Maintenance, McDowell said, involves only the routine mowing of the grass, and no actual handwork picking back brush and weeds.

Chairman Mike Shelton said that since his time as a commissioner “there has not been an issue that has generated more popular support.” Of all the letters Shelton received on the subject, not one was in favor of continuing the use of herbicide sprays.

However, a small handful of folks in attendance did in fact speak out against banning spray. Coupeville resident Roger Sherman, representing what he called the “quiet majority” of herbicide fans, used a hackneyed bit of illogic to make his point.

“Some people are allergic to milk,” Sherman said. “Should we get rid of milk?”

Rufus Rose of Clinton also aired his misgivings, saying that “taxpayers and farmers are going to pay for this decision.”

Despite this, the day clearly belonged to the many individuals and groups who put in months and often years of work to accomplish this single goal. When all was said and done, a number of citizens approached the commissioners to shake hands and thank them for making the leap to no-spray.

“It has been a long haul,” O’Neal said on Tuesday. “I feel kind of like a warrior. The reality is, this is a big step, but there’s still the state. We’re reclaiming our island bit by bit.”

Keith said she hopes WINS’ victory might inspire others, such as local golf courses and homeowner associations, to follow the county’s example.

“This is one small miracle,” Keith said. “My hope is that this is one wave in a growing tide of waking up that will create more change for better health for everyone on the planet.”

For more photos from the meeting, see the print edition of Whidbey News-Times.

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