Eversource’s draft plan for managing vegetation under its power lines on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard for the next five years looks essentially the same as the plan for the previous five years — it calls for a combination of mowing and herbicide application.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Cape & Islands state Sen. Julian Cyr. Each time the five-year plan comes out, and each time the yearly plan is released, officials in all 15 Barnstable County towns, the region’s legislators, and residents write letters expressing strong opposition to the use of herbicides, citing Cape Cod’s sandy soil and sole-source aquifer.
The Mass. Dept. of Agricultural Resources will hold a virtual public hearing to listen to comments on Eversource’s five-year draft at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3. The deadline for written comments is Nov. 7. But when contacted last week, officials in Outer Cape towns were unaware that the draft had been published and that a hearing had been set for next week.
The draft and related hearings were discussed last week at the Brewster Select Board meeting when Kimberly Pearson, who is on the town’s natural resources advisory commission as well as a state advisory board, offered a draft of Brewster’s letter opposing the plan, which the select board adjusted and sent.
“They announced this really quietly and that irked me,” said Cyr. “That’s not lost on residents concerned about exposure to pesticides. Of course, Rep. [Sarah] Peake and I will submit testimony opposing the five-year vegetation management plan.”
The five-year plans don’t list the chemicals Eversource would apply along its rights of way. Those are published in its yearly treatment plans, which show that the company has used the same compounds for several years. The list includes glyphosate, fosamine ammonium, metsulfuron-methyl, imazapyr, and triclopyr choline.
Glyphosate is the most widely known and controversial of those compounds. The World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that it may be linked to cancer, and several countries have banned its use. So far, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stands by its finding that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. But in September, the agency withdrew its interim registration of the compound following legal challenges by environmental groups. In accordance with a decision in June by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the EPA says it “intends to revisit and better explain its evaluation of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate and to consider whether to do so for other aspects of its human health analysis.”
The agency will also consider whether additional mitigation is necessary based on the compound’s effects on species protected under the Endangered Species Act, and it will prepare an analysis of glyphosate’s effects on monarch butterfly habitat.
The EPA predicts a final decision on the registration of glyphosate will be made in 2026; in the meantime, the compound can continue to be used.
Residents, town officials, and environmental groups whose attempts to halt herbicide application by Eversource on the company’s rights of way have so far been unsuccessful are worried that the sandy soil here allows compounds applied to the surface to quickly filter into the groundwater.
State legislators have filed bills in the last two sessions that would give communities more control over herbicide use on rights of way. Cyr said he is once again working to advance a bill that would require the Dept. of Public Health and the Dept. of Environmental Protection to sign off on vegetation management plans. “The approach I’m taking is trying to bolster oversight,” the senator said.
While they were caught by surprise, officials on the Outer Cape said they now plan to submit letters of opposition to the five-year draft before the deadline. Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, Wellfleet’s health and conservation agent, said her letter will repeat opposition expressed in past letters. In those, she pointed out the town has 13 properties with private drinking wells along Eversource’s right of way, and some of those are as close as 10 feet from where the herbicides are applied.
The town’s municipal well field is less than 400 feet away. Greenberg-Lemos will again note that the right of way in Wellfleet crosses several wetlands, including the Herring River, Hatches Creek, Silver Spring Brook, and Fresh Brook.
Lezli Rowell, Provincetown’s health agent and interim health director, sent a letter on behalf of the board of health late last week, urging the Dept. of Agricultural Resources to require Eversource to use alternative methods like hand-pruning and mowing to control vegetation under the power lines. “Provincetown gets its drinking water from the Pamet lens, which is a mere five feet underground,” wrote Rowell. The risk of contamination here is exacerbated by the Cape’s sandy soil, “through which contaminants can travel at the rate of a foot per day,” Rowell wrote.
In Brewster, where officials have attempted in the past to get court injunctions to stop Eversource’s application of herbicides, the select board sent a letter expressing “grave concern” with the current draft plan, calling it “fundamentally flawed” and therefore inadequate to serve as the guiding document for the company’s yearly vegetation management plans.
The Brewster board questioned Eversource’s documentation of sensitive areas and cited an example of an abutter who emailed Eversource asking how the company determined the location of private wells. The emailed response from Eversource’s lead mapping technician said, “We do not track private wells on our maps,” according to the select board’s letter.
The Brewster board added that the town “does not have confidence that the Vegetation Management Plan’s protocol is adequate to protect residents and believes some private well users may be at risk.”
Laura Kelley, president of Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer, said all the towns in Barnstable County except Bourne and Truro had taken votes to voluntarily stop using glyphosate on town-owned land. Her group has organized volunteer efforts to cut back brush. According to Kelley, abutters to the right of way can contact Eversource directly to say they don’t want chemicals applied in their areas.
“Can you imagine if 500 people did this?” Kelley said. “It would bug Eversource so much, something would have to give.”
Eversource provided the following statement: “We take seriously our responsibility to provide safe, reliable service to our customers while being responsible environmental stewards, and our vegetation management programs are a fundamental part of those efforts. To enhance reliability for our customers, we continually evaluate our Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) plan while investigating the safest, most effective and sustainable methods to keep our rights of way clear of vegetation that could threaten electrical service on Cape Cod.”
Eversource’s five-year draft plan can be found at mass.gov/doc/eversource-cape-cod-marthas-vineyard-2023-2027-vmp/download. The link to the Nov. 3 hearing and address for comments can be found at mass.gov/doc/eversource-cape-cod-2023-2027-vmp-emn/download.