The Alaska Department of Transportation says it has “no immediate plans” to spray herbicides on its rights-of-way and other property in Petersburg or elsewhere in Southeast at this point, but it may do so in the future.

Local elected leaders and fishermen in Petersburg have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the broad-based use of the chemicals. The issue has prompted concern from other Southeast communities as well since the Parnell Administration eliminated key permitting requirements for herbicide use. Matt Lichtenstein has an update.

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In its June, 2013 vegetation management plan for Alaska, the DOT says it “intends to begin using herbicide as a maintenance tool, along with non-chemical maintenance and vegetation control measures.” The idea, according to the agency, is “to provide improved maintenance service and public safety in a more cost-effective manner.” Mike Coffey is the DOT’s Statewide Maintenance and Operations Chief.

“We’re looking at this as a statewide plan and I can say right now there are no immediate plans to apply anything in Petersburg. (That’s) not to say that down the road if conditions warranted for safety or other needs but at the present time there’s no plans whatsoever.”

 According to Coffey, that goes for the rest of Southeast as well.  

The Petersburg Borough was one of a few panhandle communities, including Haines and Skagway, that sent out letters this summer opposing any large-scale use of herbicides within their boundaries. The communities raised concerns about the potential impacts on the health of local residents as well as the fish, wildlife, and plants they harvest.  

The DOT responded to the concerns in letters citing its vegetation management plan and saying it was willing to discuss any plans prior to any spraying within borough boundaries.

Coffey describes the DOT’s use of herbicides as “limited and selective”

 “I sense by some of the verbiage that there was concern that we were going to do this widespread application that we were just planning on coming in and spraying the entire right-of-way for the full length of road and we’re not planning on that anywhere. Our vision of this right now is very targeted, selective use of herbicides where it is going to provide the highest level of safety, the most cost effective areas for us to do it and we’re going to pick areas that we can be environmentally responsible in,” he says.

This summer, the DOT did a couple herbicide applications in the interior according to Coffey. An agency notice said it would be using a truck-mounted sprayer to apply herbicides to less than 20 acres along a 29 mile section of the Alaska Highway as well as the Boundary Airport off the Taylor Highway near the Canadian border. Coffey says his agency is also working with the Department of Natural Resources to try and attack some invasive plant species in the Anchorage area.

DOT primarily clears vegetation along roadsides and runways for better visibility and to maintain infrastructure:

  “Mechanical mowing, brush cutting, that sort of thing still, I think, it will always be our primary method of vegetation management. I can easily say that will always be that way. But there are specific instances, and again, safety trumps all, where that (herbicide) is a viable tool that is something that, if all things work for it, you know, it’s the appropriate herbicide, it’s going to go after the right species, its environmentally safe, then that’s a tool we wanted to have, to be able to use,” says Coffey.

Coffey says guardrails pose a particular maintenance problem:

“Mechanical methods are almost impossible around guardrails and we have, you know, hundreds of miles of guardrail in this state.”

 Coffey says vegetation can damage the structural integrity of guardrails and it can lead to berms that cause drainage problems off the highway.

 The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation paved the way for state agencies to use herbicides and pesticides last spring when it eliminated the permitting and public review requirements for most applications on state lands. Agencies can spray after giving the public 30 days notice.

That loss of local input and oversight is one of the key concerns for elected officials and others in Petersburg. Assembly members have discussed the possibility of drafting a measure to restrict the use of the chemicals. At a September assembly meeting, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association Director Brian Lynch suggested an ordinance that would require assembly approval for any broad-based use of herbicides or pesticides:

 “We would like to encourage the borough to pursue something like that so there’s more input from the community and from the fishing industry on the use of these chemicals.” Lynch said. 

PVOA is the town’s largest commercial fishing group. In an August letter to the DOT, Lynch wrote that the “Broad application of herbicides can and does affect aquatic habitats; the habitat necessary for the production of commercially-harvested species that our members are entirely dependent upon for their livelihood.”

He also raised concern that any suspicion Alaska seafood was contaminated with herbicide residue could hurt the industry’s markets.   

Petersburg has not yet pursued an ordinance. Local officials say they would need to consult with the borough’s legal counsel on whether they have the authority to restrict spraying. Assembly member Cindy Lagoudakis:

“I don’t think anybody wants to try and sue the state but that’s almost what its stacking up to be. The responses that we’ve gotten are pretty unresponsive, basically just pointing back to their integrated pest management plan and saying read this chapter, read this paragraph and leaving it at that. So, that really leaves us between a rock and a hard place. I mean, we could try and pass an ordinance but I would want to ask our counsel whether it was even worth our time to do that,” said Lagoudakis.

Like officials in Petersburg, Sitka Mayor Mim McConnel is also concerned about the elimination of the public permitting process. McConnell and other Southeast Mayors from communities around the region have been drafting a joint resolution on the issue as part of the Southeast Conference.

  “They definitely will be taking some action and what is said in the resolution is still being worked on”  

There’s also legislation pending on this issue. Anchorage Democrat Les Gara is sponsoring a bill that aims to restore the DEC permitting requirements:

 “They have made it much easier to spray pesticides on areas next to stream banks. Those pesticides will leach into fishing waters. (They have) made it much easier to spray pesticides in areas that maybe some state bureaucrat doesn’t know people hike or use for berry picking or areas that might leach downhill into somebody’s groundwater. So, our bill would return to the former rule that worked perfectly well,” says Gara.

The former rule required a detailed plan that went out for public review, comment and sometimes public hearings as well. Other state and federal agencies could also weigh-in before the DEC decided whether to issue an herbicide or pesticide permit and those decisions could be appealed. Under such requirements in the early 1990’s, the DOT abandoned a plan to spray along Southeast roadways after extensive opposition from communities.