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Environmental groups appeal herbicide permit

Posted: June 7, 2011 - 7:24am

A trio of environmental groups filed an appeal May 26 to a permit allowing the Alaska Railroad Corp. to spray herbicides on some segments of its railways.

The appeal was filed by Alaska Survival, Alaska Community Action on Toxics and Cook Inletkeeper.

In April 2010, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a permit that allowed the railroad to spray herbicides along select portions of a 90-mile segment between Seward and Indian, in addition to a couple of other areas, said Bob Blankenburg, who manages the department’s solid waste and pesticide programs.

The railroad began spraying July 2010.

Environmental groups have long challenged the spraying, saying it is potentially harmful to humans and the environment.

The recent appeal, filed with the state Superior Court in Palmer, challenges the constitutionality of the permit approval on several different fronts.

A previous request for a stay on the spraying was dismissed by the state Supreme Court.

An administrative law judge rejected several arguments that had been made in an appeal that accused the department of violating several clauses of the state’s constitution in its approval of the permits.

Complaints that were set to be heard this year about possible health ramifications of the herbicide spray were withdrawn by the environmental groups before they were set to be heard.

According to a document provided by Alaska Survival, several points of contention are being addressed in the May 26 appeal.

Among them:

  • The commissioner’s decision to OK the permit “interferes with Alaskans’ access to, and common use of, fish, wildlife and waters,”
  • The application for the permits failed to disclose the proximity of the area treated with chemicals to “surface waters, marine water bodies, and public or private water systems, or the drainage characteristics of the soil type,” and
  • The permit failed to “require the mandatory statutory safeguard of posting written notice of time and place at public places within and adjacent to the treatment areas.”

The railroad and the Conservation Department argue that the herbicide poses little threat to humans and animals. The herbicide, called AquaMaster, contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is also found in Roundup and Rodeo.

The herbicide is mixed in the field with a product called AgriDex, Blankenburg said.

In 2007, the department rejected an earlier attempt by the railroad to acquire the permitting necessary to spray. But back then the railroad was proposing to use a different herbicide.

Plus, the buffer area between bodies of water and areas being sprayed was considered insufficient, and the railroad didn’t properly identify all of the nearby water bodies, Blankenburg said.

But the latest permit allowed for a wider buffer between areas sprayed and bodies of water, he said.

Proponents of the spraying say the new solution doesn’t affect people and animals, and only kills the plants.

“It makes it impossible for them to grow and they die. And that pathway is not present in animals and humans,” he said.

But Becky Long, a board member of Alaska Survival, believes the railroad should not use herbicides of any kind to quell the vegetation.

Long admits that many non-chemical means of controlling vegetation can incur costs and become complicated, but herbicide comes with its own complications, Long said.

“Especially with glyphosate, there is resistance by the weeds themselves. They will start resisting the herbicides, and then you’ll have to just keep using more and more herbicides,” she said.

Alaska Survival has opposed the spraying of herbicides by the railroad since the end of the 1970s, Long said. She said that the spray the railroad used back then was causing people to become sick, necessitating legal action to prevent further spraying.

“We believe all herbicides are toxic, and unnecessary to use,” Long said.

The railroad has used certain other means without spraying herbicide, like manual labor with handheld tools, as well as heavy track maintenance equipment, to quell the vegetation from 1983 to 2009, according to the railroad’s release. But those means alone weren’t effective, the railroad said.

“During that time, (the railroad) fell further and further behind in the battle to control weeds during Alaska’s long summer days that promote rapid growth and re-growth,” the railroad’s release stated.

The railroad is required by the Federal Railroad Administration to control the vegetation, said railroad spokeswoman Stephenie Wheeler. It has faced fines in the past for letting the vegetation grow too much, she said.

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