Cape Cod Commission Requests Delay Of Herbicide Spraying
By: Elise R. Hugus
With a public comment deadline approaching at the end of the month, the Cape Cod Commission has requested that NStar delay its plans to spray herbicides under power lines until a suitable alternative can be found.
At a meeting between the commission and NStar earlier this month, the commissioners argued that the electric utility had not given enough detail of where it planned to spray on maps submitted to towns on January 31. Calling for a 12-month extension of the public comment period, Executive Director Paul J. Niedzwiecki said the commission plans to spend the next year mapping out the affected areas with GIS for a more accurate depiction of potentially sensitive ecological areas or drinking water supplies.
“Pausing for a period of 12 months to lead a community discussion is in everybody’s best interest. If that involves looking at alternatives, we can do that regionally,” Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “The Cape has special circumstances that require a higher level of review.”
In Falmouth, NStar is proposing that two utility corridors be sprayed between June 24 and 27 and a right-of-way that extends from the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Bourne to Falmouth, that was sprayed last year, undergo “touch-up” spraying. One route runs parallel to Route 151 from Route 28A, crossing Sam Turner Road and Boxberry Hill Road. Another right-of-way runs from the MMR in Sandwich to Sandwich Road, passing less than half a mile between vernal pools, Coonamessett Pond, and Round Pond on the way to the substation at Ashumet Road.
That is the main area of concern for Falmouth Conservation Administrator Jennifer L. McKay, who said she will tour the rights of way with an NStar representative before the spraying period officially begins on March 29. Because NStar is a public utility, the company is exempt from provisions in the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act and local bylaws, Ms. McKay said, leaving her with few options to restrict the application of herbicides in these areas. The restrictions allow herbicides approved for sensitive areas to be sprayed up to 10 feet of a certified vernal pool or wetland, 50 to 100 feet of a private well, and 100 feet of inhabited or agricultural areas.
The commission has less than three weeks to submit its appeal to the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR), which oversees the application of pesticides in Massachusetts. In a meeting with DAR last Thursday, called by Senator Robert A. O’Leary (D-Barnstable), state representatives supported the commission’s moratorium, and requested that alternatives be examined.
“We just spent several hundred million dollars cleaning up the base. It seems a little deranged to be using chemicals all across Cape Cod on top of our aquifer,” said Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D-Falmouth), who attended the meeting, along with Representatives Sarah K. Peake (D-Provincetown), Cleon H. Turner (D-Dennis), and members of the Cape Cod Commission.
However, citizen activists who have led the fight against the use of pesticides in their back yards say that a moratorium is not good enough.
“We don’t want a spray. We need a regional policy that relies on the most safe and sustainable methods [for clearing rights of way],” said Eileen Gunn, principal of Sage Environmental Solutions, a Falmouth consulting firm. “I do not believe the sprayer can be in compliance with all the [pesticide] restrictions given the detail of available maps and possible wind restrictions.”
By law, NStar is required to clear the rights of way under the power lines in order to safeguard the electric grid. In the utility’s yearly operational plan, it states that any plant with an ability to grow 12 feet or over will be targeted with a mixture of pesticides, a term that includes herbicides and insecticides.
“The burden of proof is on us, but it should be on [NStar],” said Ms. Gunn, who is working with GreenCape and the Cape Cod Commission to find alternatives to herbicides. These alternatives could include “active planting” of blueberry or bayberry, low-lying shrubs that cover the ground, thus inhibiting the growth of trees or other tall plants. In NStar’s Yearly Operational Plan, the utility states that “herbaceous growth is acceptable and encouraged,” as it provides animal habitat and food, without inhibiting the company’s access to the power lines.
At Ms. Gunn’s urging, members of the Falmouth Board of Health voted to support the commission’s moratorium last night. However, several members who had attended an informational meeting with NStar representatives, along with other town officials, said the herbicide application is controlled in volume and concentration, and would not pose a health risk.
David W. Carignan, the town health agent, underlined the power company’s responsibility to protect the national electric grid, as well as the environment. “The idea that there’s going to be migration [of chemicals] into the soil is negligible,” he said, noting that studies have shown the main ingredients in the herbicides break down when exposed to air and light.
Erica M. Szuplat, a resident of Vacation Lane, East Falmouth, who has been notified of the sprays in the past as an abutter to the power lines, said that she had done her own research on the herbicides that NStar proposes using. “The studies say they’re safe, but then when you look at the footnotes, they come from the companies that make the products. It’s not too comforting,” Ms. Szuplat said. “I feel personally they’re a risk we shouldn’t be taking. I live near the cranberry bogs and a river the town has taken a lot of energy and resources to protect.”
According to regulations, a contractor hired by NStar to spray the herbicides will contact residents within visual distance of the rights of way at their homes, and leave information about the planned spray. Residents with private wells are encouraged to notify the company to ensure that the area is not affected.
Ms. Gunn said she will continue to meet with NStar and the Cape Cod Commission to work out details of the moratorium this week. If their proposal is not approved by DAR, Ms. Gunn said that citizens should inform themselves about the chemicals being used, and work to ensure that label restrictions are followed.
“History has shown us we always find out about the dangers after the fact,” she said.
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