Washtenaw County’s road herbicide spraying plan is raising concerns

By Lonnie Huhman, lhuhman@thesuntimesnews.com

In August, the Washtenaw County Road Commission plans on spraying herbicide along rural county road right-of-ways in Lyndon, Dexter, Webster, Sylvan and Lima townships.

This announcement went out on June 10 through an email blast sent out to subscribers to the WCRC service. In the follow up, some residents of these townships are expressing deep concerns about what they view as the unknown impact the spraying could have on the land, vegetation, water and themselves while the WCRC say what its doing has been done for the past few years and has the green light from the state of Michigan.

Emily Kizer, WCRC’s Communications Manager, said through email on June 19, the herbicide spraying “is part of our four-pronged approach to maintaining vegetation along county road rights-of-way.”

“We are required by state law to maintain this area for the safety of motorists and other road users,” Kizer said. “This includes control of roadside vegetation to keep the right-of-way reasonably clear and ensure safety, clear vision, prevent obstructions to the traveled portion of the roadway, maintain proper drainage and accommodate winter maintenance operations.”

She added, “This is not a continuous spray operation. We will only be spraying specific vegetation. We will not be spraying along mowed lawns, in subdivisions, adjacent to bodies of water or along officially designated “Natural Beauty Roads.”

Concerns about this were heard loud and clear at the Webster Township Board meeting on June 18.

Sheila Palkoski, an organic farmer in Webster Township who lives along North Territorial Road, went before the township board during public comment to say she, her parents and many other people she knows are not happy with this decision by the WCRC.

She asked the township board for its help in stopping the spraying. She said it’s not only herbicide being sprayed and said one of the chemicals being used is also listed as a pesticide. She said she doesn’t think the spraying is known by many and feels it wasn’t properly announced.

She said there’s now a petition online to stop the spraying. When she heard about the spraying she followed up on the WCRC website and found information on the chemicals being used in the spraying. She said the herbicide that is also a pesticide can kill bees, butterflies and other insects. She said other chemicals listed say they can kill marine life, such as fish.

“Why are we spraying this on our roads?” she said.

The Sun Times News reached out to the WCRC through Kizer on June 19 and asked if the spraying is harmful and will a pesticide be used?

Kizer answered, “Our licensed contractor will apply a combination of three herbicides along the roadside – Tordon K, Escort and NU-Film-IR. These products are all approved by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Toxicological studies of both long-term and short-term, high-level exposures have shown these chemicals to be safe – in fact, in terms of lethal dosage, safer than substances like caffeine and aspirin. The safety data sheets for each product is available on our program web page for download.”

Also during public comment, Webster Township resident Diane Dues said as a cancer survivor she would worry about being outside if the spraying is done near the property where she gardens, which she said is a hobby that’s helped her fight cancer. She said she is concerned about the short-term and long-term impact.

Kizer said this is the third year of the spraying program.

“Each year we spray in 1/4 of the county’s townships,” she said. “This is the first time that we will spray in Lyndon, Dexter, Webster, Sylvan and Lima Townships.”

Scio Township is scheduled for this spraying in 2020.

Lima Township resident Susan Filipiak reached out to The Sun Times through email on June 19 as well.

“I’m concerned how spraying herbicide will harm insects and animals, wild flowers and trees, people and their pets who walk our rural roads, and the safety of our well water,” she said.

She lives along North Steinbach Road and said, “Additionally, I have planted dozens of daffodils and day lilies along my roadside.  I enjoy seeing the trillium, may apples, jack in the pulpit, wild phlox that grow wild along my rural road.”

Her message to the county road commission is, “Herbicides on our rural road sides – NO!”

Kizer said property owners can opt-out of the spraying program by submitting a “No treatment zone” application to the WCRC and then by clearing the road right-of-way abutting their property.

“We will work with property owners if they have questions about what specific vegetation needs to be removed,” she said.

When asked, what would the commission like the community to know about this?

Kizer said, “Maintaining the roadside right-of-way is one of our core functions and statutory responsibilities as a road agency. The spraying program is just one part of our vegetation control program to better maintain the roadside. With all that being said, we are sensitive to property owners’ concerns about herbicide spraying, that is why we allow property owners to opt-out of this part of the program if they follow our process.”

After hearing the public concern and noting they have heard concerns outside of the meeting from other residents, as well as having their own concerns and questions, the Webster Township Board, knowing the county has jurisdiction over these right-of-ways, unanimously approved a resolution to inform the WCRC of its displeasure.

Specifically, the township wants to: express its displeasure with the timing and content of the spraying announcement and request the WCRC to postpone the spraying until at a minimum of next year so the township can get some answers, including the cost of spraying versus other options such as mechanical clearing.

Township board member John Scharf, who has professional experience and knowledge through working in the specialty chemicals industry, said after looking through the data and informational sheets supplied for the spraying he wasn’t comfortable with it happening on his frontage on Webster Church Road, so he will opt-out and clear it himself.

However, he said he wonders about those who want to opt-out, but might not be able to clear it themselves. Fellow township board member John Westman said he doesn’t believe hardly anyone in the township would support the spraying.

Filipiak said she’s urging others who are concerned to contact their township boards or attend an upcoming meeting.

“Lima Township’s Board of Trustees meeting is on Monday, July 8, 7:00pm – I plan to attend to urge Lima Township to work to opt out of the WCRC plans to use herbicides,” she said and added, “I plan to file a “no treatment zone” request with WCRC, but I am concerned with the wording on the request application, ‘WCRC reserves the right to direct the application of herbicide, acting in its sole discretion’.  Others (neighbors and farmers) might not file a “no treatment zone” request and so much harm will be done to our natural rural road sides.”

Kizer is directing those interested in more information about the program, including the opt-out process, visit wcroads.org/roadside-vegetation-control or call (734) 761-1500.

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