Public Trust Eroded by Waves of Haphazardly Applied Chemicals

Bonnie Combs took these two photos Aug. 11 at Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket, R.I., on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Bonnie Combs took these two photos Aug. 11 at Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket, R.I., on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Rhode Island has no idea how much taxpayer-funded herbicide and pesticide is applied annually to publicly owned land

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The Army Corps of Engineers contacted the Cranston company to spray along the Blackstone River.

The Army Corps of Engineers contacted the Cranston company to spray along the Blackstone River.

Last month, an ecoRI News reader sent us two photographs of an incident she found “ghastly.” We ran the above photo in our Aug. 22 e-newsletter and posted it on social media. On Facebook alone, the post was shared 133 times and elicited 69 comments.

Among the Facebook comments the post received included:

“I watched the City of East Providence spray the weeds that were growing out of the sand in out local playground last year. I called the City and they never returned my call.”

“There were signs at Wenscott Reservoir (Twin Rivers) last month that warned people aquatic herbicides had been applied. I saw one placard it was on copy paper and taped to a street sign with a warning.”

After taking the photos, Aug. 11, at Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket, R.I., Bonnie Combs, a Blackstone, Mass., resident, called the Cranston-based company, North-Eastern Tree Service Inc., doing the spraying to ask what was being sprayed. The person who answered couldn’t say. The city of Woonsocket told Combs the Army Corps of Engineers manages the Blackstone River embankment and that the herbicide Dow Rodeo was being used.

Dow Rodeo is a glyphosate brand that Dow Chemical says is “for nonselective control of troublesome aquatic plants.” The product’s label warns not to directly apply to any body of water and that treatment of aquatic weeds can result in oxygen depletion which can cause fish to suffocate.

“The guy was wearing a mask and it was just dreadful to smell,” Combs told ecoRI News. “I felt they should have at least put cones out or signs as kids play right there at the ball field and playground.”

North-Eastern Tree Service is contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT) to apply herbicides and/or pesticides.

Targeted spraying
To find out how prevalent the application of herbicides and pesticides is in Rhode Island, ecoRI News reached out to DEM, DOT, the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH), the New England district of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office.

We asked about the amount and kind of pesticides and herbicides applied annually to Rhode Island public land — municipal and state parks, along roadsides, on federal property, and along the shoreline of bays, rivers, streams, ponds and lakes. We asked agencies if they keep track of where herbicides and pesticides are applied and how much is used. We asked if they conduct and/or contract any spraying. We asked why such spraying is done and what pests and weeds are typically targeted.

The responses were largely of the bureaucracy variety, and often passed the responsibility of monitoring the amounts and types of herbicides and pesticides being applied to another agency. None of the agencies provided quantities regarding the amount of taxpayer-funded pesticides and herbicides being used on public lands.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said the agency doesn’t have any federal jurisdiction over pesticides and herbicides applied on public lands or in wetland areas. He said the federal agency does use “approved herbicides at some of its dam reservoirs in New England to control invasive species.” He noted that the Corps treats terrestrial plants on flood-control structures with herbicide once a year as part of the Woonsocket Flood Risk Management Program, to keep the structures, such as the rock side of levees and channels, not designed to have vegetation, clear.

In his e-mail response, he wrote, “So the Corps would not have the type of information you are looking for. That probably would be a question for the state DEP or EPA.” He also attached a fact sheet regarding the Corps’ regulatory jurisdiction.

In a Sept. 5 e-mail, an EPA spokesman responded to ecoRI News’ information request by writing, “Emily will follow up with you this morning.” ecoRI News has not yet heard back.

DOH’s public information officer wrote, “DEM will be responding on behalf of the state on this one, given that they maintain this information.”

A DEM spokeswoman referred ecoRI News to Rule 6(B) of the state agency’s pesticide regulations, which requires all licensed applicators to maintain application and use records for two years, including the name and formulation of the product used, the location and quantity applied, purpose of the application, and target pests.

“These records are reviewed periodically by DEM’s Division of Agriculture during routine use and records inspections,” she wrote. “DEM does not have comprehensive information on the total quantities applied on public lands. The Department has a record of applications made during the past year to waterbodies (ponds, lakes and streams) that require an aquatic nuisance application and permit.”

She noted that DEM employees who hold commercial applicator licenses spray pesticides on state properties, such as parks and trails, “to control the growth of weeds and overgrowth including non-native invasive weeds such as Japanese knotweed and phragmites that can obstruct users’ line of sight and cause safety concerns, and to prevent the growth of harmful species including poison ivy.”

She also said DEM contracts with licensed applicators to perform aquatic treatments for nuisance species.

ecoRI News has filed an electronic public records request with DEM to find out what state properties DEM staff apply pesticides and/or herbicides to, what type of pesticides and/or herbicides are applied, and how much. Our Sept. 8 records request also asked to see the record of applications made during the past year to waterbodies — ponds, lakes, rivers and streams — that require an aquatic nuisance application and permit.

We have also asked to speak with a DEM staffer(s) about the issue of herbicide and pesticide application on public property. As of the time of this publication, we hadn’t yet heard back from DEM regarding those requests.

DOT’s chief public affairs officer said the state agency doesn’t spray any pesticides, but does apply herbicides to targeted roadsides, curb lines, and barrier weeds and grasses.

“We do track, when, where and the amounts of herbicides sprayed per DEM requirements,” he wrote. “But our record keeping is paper based and while we are working on building a central electronic record of this information, it doesn’t exist yet. You would need to submit an access to public records act request for the records or perhaps reach out to DEM.”

ecoRI News mailed DOT a public records request Sept. 8.

A chemical romance
In 2012, an ecoRI News story reported that sections of Rhode Island’s 1,100 miles of state roads, highways and bridges are treated with herbicides twice a year by DOT.

Among the herbicides DOT used, at least at that time, were dicamba, under the commercial name Vanquish, and glyphosate. Dicamba was applied to prevent the growth of weeds, brush and bamboo. Glyphosate was used to eliminate existing weeds and unwanted plant growth.

Dicamba, first registered for use in the United States in 1967, is a selective herbicide used to control a wide spectrum of broadleaf weeds and woody plants. At low doses, dicamba has similar hormonal properties to natural auxins. High concentrations of dicamba in plant tissue induces abnormal and uncontrollable growth, disrupting normal plant functions and resulting in death. Auxins are a class of phytohormones that are involved in plant development.

The increasing use of dicamba has been reported with the release of dicamba-resistant genetically modified plants by Monsanto. Last October, the EPA launched a criminal investigation into the illegal application of older, drift-prone formulations of dicamba onto non-resistant plants. Earlier this year, state regulators in Arkansas received 420 complaints from farmers who claimed their non-resistant crops were damaged when dicamba drifted over from neighboring farms.

Glyphosate, first registered for use in the United States in 1974 and commonly known by its trade name “Roundup,” is one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. Research has shown that the chemical is an endocrine (hormonal) disruptor, and the rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds has led to the use of even more herbicides.

Earlier this year a federal court unsealed documents raising questions about glyphosate’s safety and the research practices of its manufacturer, Monsanto. Industry-funded research has long found it to be relatively safe, but a case in federal court in San Francisco has challenged that conclusion, building on the findings of an international panel that has claimed Roundup’s main ingredient might cause cancer. Court records show that Monsanto was tipped off by an EPA deputy division director months before the information went public, giving the multinational corporation time to counter this cancer concern with a public-relations campaign.

Glyphosate is the most heavily used agricultural chemical in history. A study published last year determined that Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction 43 years ago. Worldwide, 9.4 million tons of the chemical have been applied — enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre in the world.

Since state and federal authorities seem to have little to no idea about how much of what is being applied to taxpayer-subsidized properties in Rhode Island, the amounts being used on private property are totally off the radar.

However, of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are probable or possible carcinogens; 11 are linked to birth defects; 19 to reproductive impacts; 24 to liver or kidney damage; 14 possess neurotoxicity; and 18 cause disruption of the endocrine system, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Beyond Pesticides.

The over-reliance on pesticides and herbicides is turning soil and water resources into de facto dumping grounds for chemicals that threaten public health and the environment. Poisons from these concoctions can seep into groundwater, or turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, run and lie on treated areas. They get kicked up during youth sporting events. Those yellow and white warning flags in the grass do little to protect public health, the environment, or animals that can’t read.

On Sept. 17, 2011, the day before one of Rhode Island’s most popular road races, the annual CVS Caremark Downtown 5K, chemicals were applied to the lawns at the Statehouse and across the street at Station Park before thousands of runners and their families arrived.

The tiny warning signs went largely unnoticed by those participating in pre-race gatherings or post-race picnics on both expanses of green — all at the doorstep of state legislators and the agencies designated to protect public health.

Update Sept. 19: DEM e-mailed ecoRI News at 11:31 a.m. saying it needed 20 more days to process our records request.