Rift Over Roundup
PG debates continued use of America’s most popular herbicide.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Pacific Grove resident Ximena Waissbluth was walking her dog in Pacific Grove’s Washington Park when she saw a man spraying a clear liquid under the picnic tables. “I first thought that he was just watering the forest floor, because there was so much,” she told the PG City Council on Feb. 21. “Then I smelled it, asked him, and he said it was Roundup. Why? To kill the weeds.”
The revelation rattled Waissbluth, chair of the local Surfrider chapter. She worried about the herbicide’s effects on the park ecosystem, on the butterflies who famously rest there, and on the tourists who flock to see them. A little research convinced Waissbluth that the product’s main ingredient, glyphosate, is toxic to people, animals and the environment.
There’s plenty of evidence that she’s right. Then again, there’s evidence supporting the opposite view: Roundup is perfectly safe when used correctly. As activists pressure the city to stop using the herbicide both in parks and on the dunes, the abundance of research upholding both poles of the glyphosate debate leaves City Councilmembers groping for a verdict on America’s most popular herbicide.
Currently, PG uses roughly 15 gallons of Roundup per year, spraying around ballfields and restrooms, on the edges of playgrounds and in grassy areas, according to Celia Perez Martinez of the city’s Public Works department. It’s intended to kill English daisies and broadleaf weeds for aesthetic reasons. “In our opinion, Roundup is safe,” she says.
While the City has no written pesticide policy, staff follow all state and federal protocols, use certified pesticide applicators, and post in areas where people gather, Perez Martinez says. PG also contracts with Clark Pest Control to spray weeds—most recently at the Community Center with Speed Zone, an herbicide containing the toxic compounds dicamba and 2,4-D.
The City also has contracts with environmental planning firm Rana Creek Restoration Ecology to use Roundup on the dunes around the golf course, where invasive iceplant has choked out native species including four endangered plants and the black legless lizard, a state species of special concern. The firm sprayed 12 acres in 2005 and 2006, says Rana Creek planner Pat Regan, and hopes to spray eight more next winter.
As Waissbluth and other activists point out, scores of studies indicate that glyphosate can be dangerous. Research has linked the herbicide to symptoms as minor as skin irritation and as major as late-term miscarriages, attention deficit disorder and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Glyphosate may also have significant effects on the environment, damaging fishes’ immune systems and frogs’ genes, contaminating streams and killing non-weeds through drift.
“It’s very reasonable for citizens to say, ‘We don’t need to be doing this,’ ” says Californians for Pesticide Reform Director David Chatfield. “There are other ways to deal with pests.”
But others argue the case against Roundup is overblown. One report cooperatively prepared by several universities declares glyphosate “practically nontoxic” by ingestion and unlikely to cause reproductive disorders, cancer or birth defects. Though the chemical is moderately persistent in soil—half of it breaking down in an average of 47 days—it sticks to particles, so it’s not likely to run off into waterways, the report states.
As far as Regan is concerned, the goal is to restore the native dune habitat around the PG golf course—which means killing the iceplant. “Nothing else will grow with it, and it just spreads everywhere,” Regan says.
As nasty as invasives can get, other cities have shown that Roundup is not the only option. At the urging of anti-pesticide activists, the cities of Seattle, Portland, Eugene and Santa Barbara have pledged to maintain a few of their public parks without herbicides. San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Salinas have adopted “integrated pest management” approaches that direct staff to try natural pest controls first—while leaving the door open to herbicide use when other alternatives are unfeasible. Non-synthetic pest control methods include hand weeding, mulching, mowing, heating with propane flames, and using botanically-derived products.
Carmel-by-the-Sea hasn’t used herbicides in parks for years, City Forester Michael Branson says. “Years ago we did use Roundup for weed abatement, but other means seem to give the same results,” he says. “The hassles of spraying are sometimes just not worth it.”
With the dune restoration project, Regan says covering the iceplant with clear plastic in the summer would cook the weeds underneath—but also, potentially, the native seed banks below them. Hand-pulling would cost the City up to $25,000 per acre, compared with $2,500 to use Roundup, he says.
Ultimately, the PG City Council will decide how to proceed. At its March 7 meeting, past the >>Weekly’s deadline, Golf Director Mike Leach is scheduled to report on glyphosate’s potential impacts on the dune ecosystem, and Regan will speak about alternatives to its use.
Waissbluth hopes PG will follow Carmel’s lead, replacing herbicides with volunteer elbow grease to pull up iceplant on the dunes. “Use the community,” she says. “There are creative ways to do it.”