NSTAR reps say herbicide spray is safe and necessary

Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Tisbury board of health hosted a public meeting Tuesday in which NSTAR representatives got an opportunity to explain why the utility company resumed an herbicide spraying program to control the growth of vegetation under power lines on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod last month and to answer questions.

In an almost two-hour meeting punctuated by scientific hyperbole, the three utility reps patiently explained the program amid chastisements, personal insults, and suggestions that included the use of sheep to control growth under the power lines.

Board of health chairman Bruce Stelle managed the meeting, attended by about 10 members of the public and town officials.

Paul Sellers, a senior arborist in NSTAR’s district vegetation management program, said the utility stopped using herbicides four years ago to give people with concerns time to contact NSTAR and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR) with credible reasons why the chemicals should not be used.

Arborist Bill Hayes, who works in NSTAR’s transmission vegetation management department, said water quality issues concerned most people. NSTAR listened to the concerns and worked with the Environmental League of Massachusetts, which acted as an arbitrator between the utility and various groups. In the end, he said NSTAR’s Integrated Vegetation Management Program (IVMP) was validated by the DAR as the best solution.

Mr. Hayes said the IVM model is a five-year plan that uses mechanical control, through cutting and mowing, and natural control, followed one to two years later with selected use of environmentally-sensitive herbicides to eliminate tall-growing invasive vegetation. Contrary to what some people think, Mr. Hayes said, NSTAR does not use helicopters to spray the herbicides. Crews outfitted with backpack applicator systems target specific vegetation, he said.

On November 26, NSTAR completed a limited herbicide application on the right-of-way in Tisbury, with some extending into Oak Bluffs. Mr. Sellers said they primarily targeted pitch pines, treated cut deciduous tree stumps, and did basal applications to other invasive plants. He said it was unlikely NSTAR would be doing any additional herbicide application in 2014, other than some “touch-ups.”

Health commissioner Michael Loberg asked if vegetation spun out of control over the four-year moratorium period.

“Sure,” Mr. Hayes said, furnishing a photo. “Pitch pine is a root-suckering conifer, so when you mow it you don’t remove the roots, and it gets thicker and thicker. When we cut maple, birch, and poplar, it can get over six feet tall in a year. In the IVM model, we don’t have to come back with mowing, because the herbicides disrupt the root surge. The model is designed to reduce the use of chemical and mechanical methods.”

Melinda Loberg, president of Tisbury Waterways Inc., a citizens water quality advocacy group, said she was concerned about reports that the herbicides might affect invertebrates, such as shellfish, given that some of the utility lines run close to Lake Tashmoo.

Mr. Hayes said the herbicide is applied to foliage, works systemically, and breaks down chemically over time. “There is no run-off, no getting down to groundwater,” he said. “If you applied it directly to the water, it wouldn’t be good for the fish.”

Baa, baa

“We have two different roles here,” Paul Lazes, a resident of Vineyard Haven, said. “NSTAR needs to maintain its power lines and we need to feel safe.” He suggested that NSTAR go the route taken in New Hampshire last summer, where 500 sheep grazed beneath power lines on a 13-mile strip and cleared it of invasive species. Mr. Lazes introduced Allen Healy and Jefferson Munroe, who he said would be interested in using their sheep in a similar program on the Island.

“NSTAR is not opposed to using grazing animals in certain circumstances, where they lend themselves to part of our rights of way,” Mr. Hayes said. “There are plants for which that won’t be effective, but the company is certainly amenable to using it in some places.”

He said that he and Jerry McDermott, in attendance for NSTAR community relations, would take that suggestion back to the company.

Jude Villa, a landscaper from Edgartown, said she has several issues with herbicides and would support the idea of sheep grazing.

“I think the whole Island would be in favor of that,” she said. “I myself would be interested in pursuing that. I work with people who have animals and are always looking for places to put their sheep.”

Defending poison

“The issue is, we’re talking about safety,” Mr. Loberg said. “I think people could feel that this isn’t subtle science.” He recalled that DDT was approved as being safe at first and then pulled because of its toxic effects. “These people are saying to themselves, what’s the truth in this: what am I going to see 20 years from now?”

As a parent and resident of Vineyard Haven, Lyndsay Farmariss said she lives close to power lines and is concerned about kids who play near them and may come into contact with the chemicals.

“We’re going to get the word out and try to be as active as possible as a community,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of animals grazing. Even if they’re only suitable only for some areas, I feel a lot of Islanders would be in favor of that. I avoid using chemicals in my yard and feel strongly about cutting down use of them. I’m hoping that moving forward we can be better neighbors and work together to find a compromise that works for all of us.”

Paul Kozak, co-owner of MV Honey Company, warned the three NSTAR reps that he was not going to be nice. He accused the three NSTAR reps of being arrogant and dismissive toward the board of health “The three of you quite honestly should be ashamed of yourselves, coming here and defending this poison,” he said.

Mr. Stelle objected and said he did not think the NSTAR group had been derogatory in any way. “Do you have concrete questions you’d like to ask,” he asked Mr. Kozak.

“I have a concrete statement: you and your poisons are not welcome here under any circumstances,” Mr. Kozak replied.

In response to complaints from the public and also board of health members and staff about a lack of notification about the spraying program, Mr. Hayes said the DAR is in charge of that and advertised it in the Cape Cod Times.

Tom Pachico, Tisbury health agent, said it would be better to put a notice in the Island newspapers, and that he would appreciate being informed before the spraying starts, instead of hearing about it after the fact, when people call to complain.