Spray policy a starting point

Responding to months of pressure from a group opposed to the use of herbicides on county roadsides, the Island County Public Works Department has a plan.

Written in mid-December, the department's Herbicide Reduction Program lays out buffer areas between the herbicides the county sprays and shorelines, streams, wetlands and wells. The plan also includes provisions for avoiding rare plant species and people suffering from chemical injuries.

Made public late last month when a member of the Whidbey Island No Spray coalition received a copy, the plan is getting both cautious kudos and criticism from spray opponents.

"Our response is 'Great, now here's how it ought to be,' " said Marianne Edain, a member of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network and part of a group of county citizens who successfully lobbied for a reduction in the county's herbicide program in 1985.

Island County uses herbicides to kill weeds growing at the edges of county roads. Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton maintained during discussions last month regarding spraying that weed control is necessary to maintain visibility and safety on the county's roads. The only alternative to using herbicides is a regular mowing program.

Both WEAN and WINS spokeswoman Laurie Keith said this week that the plan is only a start. While it does keep herbicides such as Oust and Rodeo away from fresh water, Puget Sound and sensitive plants and humans, the plan does not call for a specific amount of spray reduction. Both groups want something more concrete.

Keith said the Island County Board of Commissioners could decide to eliminate herbicides from the county's road maintenance inventory this spring if they so choose.

"It's not that far out of reach," she said Monday. "By next month they have to decide if they have to buy chemicals or mowers."

Right now, it appears chemicals will be the choice, just less of them. Bill Oakes, the county's public works director, said last week the county road crew members who do the spraying this year will be armed with not only sprayers, but maps of areas to avoid. The county will also continue to honor "No Spray" signs posted by those living along county roadsides.

While the herbicide reduction plan is not presently up for negotiation, Oakes said he expects continued pressure for more reductions.

"I don't think this is the end of the issue," he said.

Oakes said the new plan goes a long way toward reducing herbicide use. He said the plan and the maps that accompany it constitute the first written herbicide procedure public works has ever used. However, the concepts in the plan are not new.

"I believe it has been informally in place for the last two seasons," he said.

Keith said she and WINS will continue to pressure the county for the total elimination of herbicide use for road maintenance. She said conversion to a "no spray" policy could be both immediate and cost effective. Citing Thurston County as an example, she said that county does its maintenance on 1,000 miles of roads largely herbicide free for about $115,000 more per year than Island County spends for 600 miles of road maintenance.

While there are no formal negotiations of the county's spray program planned, both WINS and WEAN will continue to push for more changes. In a written response last week to the reduction program, WEAN's Steve Erickson criticized the plan for what he saw as a lack of explicit goals, monitoring, and for what he called "wiggle room" room in the program's terminology.

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