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Under pressure, DOT vows spray cuts

A brief blowup between Whidbey Island herbicide spray opponents and the Department of Transportation this week has evolved into policy that could make highways 525 and 20 almost spray free.

According to Ray Willard, the manager of the DOT's roadside maintenance program, the agency did not notify all chemically sensitive and injured people living on Whidbey Island that they were spraying near highways with herbicides over the past two weeks. State law, he said, requires the DOT to give advance notification to chemically sensitive people if they register with the agency and if they live within a half mile of a spray zone.

In the past, the DOT has notified everyone on the list, regardless of where they live in relation to the highway. This year, Willard said, the DOT stuck with the letter of the law. Theresa Ghandi, a chemically injured Greenbank resident who does not live near the highway and who did not receive her usual notification by phone, was concerned Monday. She said herbicide spray is a hazard when she drives on the island's highways and without notification, she cannot avoid it and the potential illness inhaling the chemical fumes will cause.

"We have to use our intuition and call," she said of having to track the spraying information herself.

But amidst outcry from a number of island "no-spray" advocates over the past few days, the DOT revealed plans this week to begin a vegetation management program in 2004 that will use more native plants and fewer chemicals to keep roadsides under control. Dave McCormick, a regional maintenance engineer with the DOT, said starting in 2004, his agency will begin planting and reduce spraying. And all of it will cost less than the current roadside management program, which was a $100,000 budget item for the state this year.

Willard, commenting on the policy change, credited activism with pushing the program. At the moment, his office has 25 letters of concern over the spray issue from Whidbey Island residents to answer.

"The motivation were getting from the no-spray folks has been pretty helpful," he said.

The change does not mean the DOT is forsaking herbicides such as Roundup and Oust. But, said McCormick, sprayers working for the state will have less to do on Whidbey Island as the state slowly plants native plants alongside highways during future construction projects. Natives like salal and rhododendrons, he said, will not require maintenance and will help keep roadsides clear of tall, sight blocking weeds.

In addition, the DOT will be more cautious in using herbicides near sensitive aquatic environments, like wetlands and streams. DOT currently complies with U.S. Department of Agriculture spray standards near aquatic environments, McCormick said, but will exceed that standard in the future.

McCormick cautioned that the plan, called integrated vegetation management, will take time, as the DOT will not do a wholesale planting of natives on island highway roadsides.

Integrated vegetation management is currently being used by the state on sections of I-5 and is about to be put into place in Clallum County, according to McCormick.

Willard did not say whether there will be any change in the DOT's new spray notification policy. However, he did say the agency plans to set up a hotline state residents will be able to call to find out about spraying in their areas.

The agency seems to have notified the chemically injured in accordance of the law. Diana Rayner, a Freeland resident who is on the DOT's call list, said she received notification just prior to spraying in her area. However, even with the notification system in place, Rayner said ending spraying is the only way to properly protect all Whidbey Island residents.

The chemically sensitive can have a number of reactions to chemical exposure, according to Rayner, including pneumonia-like symptoms.

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