County ends roadside spraying

Among those attending Monday
Among those attending Monday's meeting of the Island County Commissioners were opponents of the county's weed spraying ordinance including Jennifer Lail, front left, and Susanne Ohrvik, right. Comissioners voted to discontinue all roadside spraying.
— image credit: Rick Levin

April Fool's Day 2002 will be remembered as the moment "No Spray" signs became an artifact of Island County's past.

In a bold and unexpected move, the county's Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 to delete chemical herbicides from the county's roadside maintenance program -- a decision that drew raucous cheers from the 100-plus No Spray advocates on hand.

Island County joins Jefferson, Thurston, Clallam, San Juan and Snohomish as the only counties in the state to forgo the use of herbicides and pesticides in roadside maintenance.

Packing the room to near capacity, the crowd represented a cross-section of residents who have lobbied long and hard against the county's chemical spray policy: They were young and old, students and retirees, hippies, yippies, physicians, women in gas masks and even someone toting a live canary, symbolic of the age-old test used by miners to warn of deadly gases in coal mines.

In recent months, these coalitions put the screws to county officials, pressuring the commissioners with letters, e-mails and a public outpouring of local support.

Lori Oneal, head of the Whidbey Island Chemically-Injured Network, described the board's decision as a miracle.

"It's just a huge day for Island County," Oneal said Tuesday morning, adding that she had not expected a complete stop to spraying.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "The timing is incredible. It felt like democracy today."

Steve Erickson of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, which has been advocating a no-spray policy since 1985, was similarly overjoyed.

"I'm floating," he said. "We made various attempts over the years, but nothing took off until this year. I think it's huge. It was a social issue whose time has come."

Laurie Keith, possibly the most influential voice of late in her work with the Whidbey Island No-Spray Coalition, said she is feeling "really inspired and positive" by the board's decision.

"It's just uplifting for all of us to see that citizen action can be heard and responded to," Keith said. "It was the sheer volume that did it. It really kind of tuned around in the last couple of weeks here. There's a lot of smart, educated people from all different sides of the spectrum speaking out."

The board's unanimous vote on the no-spray resolution scrapped a 2002 purchase order for $27,632 in herbicides that in itself represented a significant reduction from the $90,000 spent on chemical sprays last year.

In submitting the purchase order for board approval, county public works director Bill Oakes said that if the board decided to go no-spray, county crews could maintain roadside vegetation "with mechanical means" such as mowers.

Commissioner Bill Thorn, who made the motion to permanently discontinue the use of industrial herbicides in Island County, said he has always had great empathy for the no-spray movement.

"It's been my position consistently that we should stop spraying," Thorn said. "The general proliferation of chemicals in the environment is not a good thing."

Commissioner Mac McDowell, in explaining his position on the issue, invoked the role of government. Although not convinced that herbicides are dangerous, McDowell said that it is the job of commissioners to "represent the public." In this instance, he noted the the sentiments of citizens were clearly against spraying.

"I'm going to be supportive of doing what the lion's share of the public would like is to do, which is stop spraying," McDowell said.

McDowell said he made up his mind on the issue when he visited Jefferson County last week, a county which has a no-spray policy that has been referenced often as a goad to Island County to make the change. He said he had not realized that no-spray counties simply allow grass to grow on road shoulders. Maintenance, McDowell said, involves only the routine mowing of the grass, and no actual handwork picking back brush and weeds.

Chairman Mike Shelton said that since in his years as a commissioner, no issue has enjoyed more popular support than the no-spray movement. Of all the letters Shelton received on the subject, not one was in favor of continuing the use of herbicide sprays, he said.

However, a small handful of folks at Monday's meeting did speak out against banning spray. Coupeville resident Roger Sherman, representing what he called the "quiet majority" of herbicide fans, used an analogy to make his point.

"Some people are allergic to milk," he said. "Should we get rid of milk?"

Rufus Rose of Clinton also aired his misgivings, saying that "taxpayers and farmers are going to pay for this decision."

Despite these protests, the day clearly belonged to the individuals and groups who put in months and years of work to make Island County no spray. When all was said and done, a number of citizens approached the commissioners to shake hands and thank them for making the leap to no-spray.

"It has been a long haul," O'Neal said on Tuesday. "I feel kind of like a warrior. The reality is, this is a big step, but there's still the state. We're reclaiming our island bit by bit."

Laurie Keith said she hopes the herbicide victory might inspire others, such as local golf courses and home-owner associations, to follow the county's example.

"This is one small miracle," she said. "My hope is that this is one wave in a growing tide of waking up that will create more change for better health for everyone on the planet."

As for the stockpile of herbicide the county has on hand, Bill Oakes said Tuesday that the companies that sold the products to the county will take them back for disposal or reuse.

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