Wellfleet and Eastham are among a dozen towns on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard scheduled for herbicide application this year by Eversource along the company’s rights-of-way. Workers will be out there with backpack sprayers from June to mid-October.
On the Outer Cape, the last leg of the main electricity transmission line through Eastham and Wellfleet is targeted. “The right-of-way roughly follows Route 6 up to Wellfleet but much deeper east,” said Bill Hayes, transmission vegetation supervisor for Eversource. It includes some areas in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Glyphosate, a herbicidal compound historically applied along the power lines, is once again listed for use this year on the Cape. It is the principal ingredient in the weed killer Rodeo. As usual, its planned use here is stirring opposition.
Glyphosate has been the subject of several high-profile lawsuits that claim its use in herbicides causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. According to Reuters, more than 100,000 lawsuits have been filed over the herbicide Roundup and other products containing glyphosate.
The World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that glyphosate had a probable link to cancer, and several countries have banned its use.
In addition to glyphosate, other herbicides slated for application here contain fosamine ammonium, metsulfuron-methyl, imazapyr, and triclopyr choline.
In 2017, concern over a plan to use herbicides to control phragmites as part of the Herring River Restoration Project prompted the executive council overseeing the proposal to vote not to use herbicides. That decision still holds, according to Martha Craig, executive director of the Friends of Herring River.
In 2019, both Wellfleet and Eastham adopted policies that prohibit the use of glyphosate on town-owned properties.
But under the state’s Pesticide Control Act, the Mass. Dept. of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) “retains the sole right to regulate the use of pesticides, including herbicides.” The law trumps any town policies or regulations on herbicide use.
The Eastham Select Board planned to send a letter to the state Pesticide Bureau earlier this week, expressing strong opposition to the use of chemical vegetation management. “MDAR, in continuing to support chemical vegetation control measures, shows a lack of concern for the special environment with the sole source aquifer on Cape Cod,” said the board in its letter.
“It is the Town’s position that spraying herbicides is unnecessary and irresponsible, given that there are so many other alternative vegetation management techniques,” said Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe in an email. “We would be happy to partner with Eversource to assist them with developing and implementing a program of manual removal of invasive/overgrown plants for the health of our community and the preservation of our water supply.”
Once the comment period on this year’s vegetation management plan ends at 5 p.m. on April 9, MDAR will decide whether to approve it. Its approval year after year has frustrated Cape Cod residents. (Comments should be sent to Clayton Edwards, director of the Rights-of-Way Program at Mass. State Pesticide Bureau: [email protected].)
MDAR should be listening to the communities, said Don Keeran, assistant director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. “It’s incumbent on MDAR to write some satisfactory legislation that is more responsive to regional concerns,” he said.
The Cape’s sandy soil allows compounds applied on the surface to quickly filter down to the groundwater. Residents, town officials, and state legislators have spent several years attempting to halt herbicide application in the region.
Susan Phelan of the environmental group GreenCAPE said she would like a better “on the ground” picture of where herbicides will be applied. “The Cape is spending so much money to clean up the water, it seems reckless and irresponsible to continue using herbicide when they can do it mechanically,” Phelan said.
Laura Kelley, the founder and president of Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer, is urging residents to submit comments. “It’s a chance to put in writing that we don’t want this,” Kelley said. “There is power in numbers. It’s the only thing that will change this. If 5,000 people wrote, it would have an impact.”
Kelley has organized teams of volunteers who prune along the right-of-way in order to eliminate the need for weed killers. She has also arranged for goats to chew back vegetation.
Kelley is urging abutters who own land in the rights-of-way but have easements on their deeds for utility work to contact Hayes to say they don’t want herbicides applied. They can offer to cut the brush back themselves, Kelley said.
According to Hayes, Eversource doesn’t want residents taking vegetation control into their own hands. “It’s our company’s responsibility,” he said. Well-meaning volunteers could be damaging valuable natural habitat, he said.
Supt. Brian Carlstrom said the Cape Cod National Seashore “doesn’t have an outright ban, but only uses chemicals as a last resort. We work very closely with Eversource. We do provide feedback to them to have the smallest footprint possible.”
Cape Cod’s legislative delegation has unsuccessfully filed bills during the past two sessions that would give communities more control over herbicide use on rights-of-way. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Woods Hole, with Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown as co-sponsor, filed a bill that would allow communities, by majority votes of town meetings and with the approval of local boards of health, to adopt ordinances and bylaws stricter than state law that restrict or prohibit the use, application, and disposal of pesticides within their borders.
State Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro and Sen. Susan Moran of Falmouth are working on a similar bill for the Senate.
Cyr has already filed a bill that would wrest some control over pesticide use from MDAR. Under its provisions, the commissioner of the Dept. of Food and Agriculture would have to “consult and concur” with the commissioners of environmental protection and public health regarding the protection of drinking water sources from pesticide contamination.
There may be some future restriction on where glyphosate can be used from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been required, under a court settlement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, to analyze the effects of the federally registered uses of glyphosate on endangered species.
An EPA draft, released in November 2020, concluded that glyphosate may injure or kill 93 percent of the plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. The draft also found that glyphosate could adversely affect 96 percent of critical habitat.
Nathan Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said changing restrictions is a two-step process. The EPA will finalize its evaluation and review comments that have been submitted. The agency will then release a final report.
From there, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service will do an analysis, based on their expertise. “The numbers may come down a bit,” Donley said. “When Fish and Wildlife and Marine Fisheries find a species at risk, they will propose mitigations that could be geographical restrictions or buffers. The process takes about two years.”
Despite a series of lawsuits that ultimately led to a $10 billion settlement last year, the EPA once again approved registered uses of glyphosate in January 2020. “They gave interim approval, subject to additional mitigation,” Donley said. “Basically, it gave the green light with the possibility of reining in.”