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Round 2 for county, spray opponents

For the second time in a week, a group of Whidbey Island residents confronted Island County officials last Wednesday to air their concerns about the county's policy of spraying roadside weeds with what they deem harmful industrial pesticides.

Unlike the commissioners' Nov. 19 meeting -- when more than a dozen opponents of weed spraying hijacked official proceedings with 90 minutes of emotional testimony -- Wednesday's staff session was a relatively controlled affair, with various county officials throwing scientific wrenches in claims that spraying causes adverse health affects.

"There's nothing in the data that we can find to indicate that this is an environmental or a health issue," said County Health Director Tim McDonald.

He discussed the county's use of herbicides such as Crossbow, Direx 4L and Round-Up Pro. He said no pesticides have been detected in any Group A water systems in Island County.

McDonald also countered previous claims by no-spray advocates that incidences of cancer and other diseases are rising in Island County due to the county's spraying.

He conceded that there might be a higher rate of breast cancer among women, though he suggested that such data might be attributed to current "early detection" programs sponsored by health departments.

"There's no high incidence of chronic disease or cancer in Island County," said McDonald,

Don Meehan, director of the county's WSU Extension service, read a lengthy statement in which he urged "paying attention to the science rather than the scientists." He also warned that when it comes to both no-spray proponents and the companies which produce such chemicals, "both sides go overboard way to often" in their arguments.

At one point, Meehan appeared to refute those condemning the proliferation of chemicals in the environment by noting things made of chemicals.

"What can you say to someone that says, 'We have got to quit exposing our families and kids to chemicals?'" Meehan asked. "I don't have a clue of what to say. Nothing is appropriate because the situation posed is so absurd."

Laurie Keith, president of the Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition, later refuted Meehan's claims by drawing a distinction between naturally occurring chemicals and those that are synthetically manufactured, saying that "we have to take a step back and look at the big picture."

Keith said that when it comes to certain chemical pesticide and herbicide combinations "there's a big unknown," and urged commissioners to keep in mind a thing called the "precautionary principle."

"Given that we can't know it all, we need to act with caution," Keith said.

As for alternative methods to spraying roadside weeds, Public Works Director Bill Oakes gave a brief presentation on his recent investigations into alternative means of vegetation control that could potentially be used by the county.

Besides mowing and extended paving of shoulders, Oakes presented information on the use of heat machines, which he labelled the "most interesting" of the lot.

Heat control of weeds involves industrial machinery that essentially irons weeds with a high-level of heat, thereby destroying the stalks and seeds. Oakes added, however, that "there's not a lot of local experience" using such a method.

Commissioner Mike Shelton said that when it comes to the county's policy of vegetation control, he was concerned with balancing the interest of no-spray advocates against other sectors of the public.

"As much as I want to protect the chemically sensitive, I also want to protect the motoring public," said Shelton.

Shelton closed the 90-minute dialogue with a statement on the commissioners' behalf.

"We will make a decision, obviously, before we move forward to next year's spray season."

On Monday, WINS again reiterated their arguments during the regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners. During the 20-minute session, the group introduced Sally Goodwin, who testified on WINS' behalf.

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