By Michael Shank
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. He serves on Brandon’s planning commission and energy committee.
Last month, a settlement was reached between the state of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont’s Toxics Action Center office, and the Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen-Pittsford Insect Control District, where I live. While it technically ends a legal dispute over pesticide spraying in Vermont, which originated due to concerns filed by Vermont Law School that the insect district failed to adequately “evaluate the impact on water quality and non-target aquatic organisms” from its spraying of chemicals, the concerns for many landowners in Brandon remain unresolved.
The need for legitimate third-party evaluation, for example, on the pesticides’ impacts to water and wildlife (and ultimately humans), remains. The fact that the state of Vermont, including its Department of Health, appears to be taking a laissez-faire approach to how and when pesticides are used in my town, leaving it largely in the district’s hands to discern and disclose health impacts to humans and environmental impacts to critical habitat, is disconcerting and problematic.
There are no state regulators or monitors here in Brandon, for example, actively involved in the protection of people, homes, animals, fields and streams, from the spraying of malathion and permethrin. And these aren’t just any pesticides. They are considered “highly toxic” to wildlife and marine life by the National Pesticide Information Center. And malathion is so toxic that it can “jeopardize the continued existence” of more than 1,200 endangered birds, fish and other animals and plants.
What’s even more disconcerting is that the issue – to spray or not to spray – seems to be off the table in many circles, including media outlets, with editors of local papers actively targeting (and, arguably, bullying) dissenters in the press. As Vermont towns ramp up taxpayer funding for more spraying, everything should be transparent, on the table, and up for scrutiny, including third-party monitoring and oversight of spraying.
That’s why we now need state of Vermont staff to step up and support residents in these spray districts. There are ample ways the state can support a safer and sounder path going forward, so that mosquito populations can be better managed – while pesticide exposure to humans, water and wildlife can be reduced.
First, and most importantly, the state should clarify and formalize science-based triggers for applying adulticide, so that district board discretion and informal requests are no longer driving the frequency and intensity of the spraying.
Second, the state should require annual ecological and scientific assessments of adverse impact to water and wildlife in the district (contracting with a neutral third party to evaluate impact on an annual basis). Vermont’s health department should also have a role in this. For example, the state should help prevent chemical contamination of any Vermont waterway in order to protect wildlife and reduce human exposure. The trucks that spray pesticide currently discharge too close to lakes, feeder streams and wetlands.
Third, the state should help local districts pursue, test and offer natural alternatives to homeowners who don’t want chemical pesticides used on their property. These alternative treatments (what’s used in Rhode Island communities, for example) could also be used on properties immediately adjacent to no-spray zones. Furthermore, the state should actively partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on natural processes to reduce mosquito population and explore whether or not the Lemon Fair Insect Control District’s approach, which only uses bacterial larvicide, could serve as precedent for other Vermont districts.
Fourth, the state should actively ramp up efforts in spray zones to protect, nurture, and build the predator population (i.e. all the predators that eat mosquitoes), and ensure that no endangered species are exposed to malathion. There are too many stories surfacing locally of dying bee populations for this to be left unattended.
Fifth, the state should mandate spraying disclosures to new homeowners, so that people moving into these districts know, before purchasing a home, that pesticide spraying is regularly practiced. This would be similar to lead and radon awareness and testing that happens when a house is purchased.
Sixth, the state should mandate an opt-in system for spraying (versus the opt-out system currently in use). Presently, if you don’t want your house, animals, gardens, streams and fields to be sprayed with pesticides, you have to print out and send in a parcel map and parcel ID with a letter requesting that your property not be sprayed. Short of an opt-in system, “opt-out days” at town offices, automated phone systems, or online forms should, at minimum, replace the tedious, map-based, mail-in requirements.
Lastly, the state should support a text-based notification system so that homeowners know exactly when pesticide spraying is going to happen (which night and at what time) so that residents can respond accordingly by shutting windows, removing animals from exposure, covering gardens, etc.
There are many other improvements that could be listed here, including the modulation of spray trucks so that they can differentiate sides of the road (currently the truck sprays both sides simultaneously) so that neighbors don’t have to be in conflict over who gets sprayed and who doesn’t. But there’s plenty for the state to start on in the meantime.
It’s time for the state to step up and protect people, its waterways and wildlife. There’s too much at stake to be lackadaisical any longer.