Seaside resident Roelof Wijbrandus looks lost. He came to the Oldemeyer Center on Aug. 20 expecting to air his concerns about the government’s plan to spray synthetic pheromones by plane over the Peninsula, an effort to eradicate the invasive light brown apple moth.
Instead, he’s found a stuffy room full of upset citizens and flustered officials. State and federal employees staff tables stocked with storyboards and handouts, but they spend much of their time deflecting heated questions from more than 100 residents.
The locals all seem to be seething about the lack of public process around the spray plan. They’re disturbed by the experimental nature of blanketing a 60-mile residential area with pheromones. And they feel they’re not getting complete answers.
Wijbrandus suspects it’s chaos by design. “They want to limit public input,” he says. “They have already set the [spray] date. They are telling us the products they are using are safe. I don’t necessarily trust that.”
On Aug. 14, the state Department of Food and Agriculture announced plans to spray CheckMate OLR-F from three planes over the Peninsula, from Marina to Pacific Grove, on the nights of Sept. 5-7. A second aerial spraying with a similar product, CheckMate LBAM-F, is planned for a month later.
The idea is that, if the environment is inundated with the female moth’s sex scent, the confused male moths will be unable to locate mates. No booty, no babies.
To the officials who devised the spray plan, synthetic pheromones are an ideal solution to the apple moth invasion. They’re technically considered pesticides, but they don’t kill the target pests. Even organic growers are allowed to use pheromones products if their inert ingredients are deemed by the EPA to be of minimal concern.
“This is the most benign material I have ever seen,” says USDA spokesman Larry Watkins. “This is a quantum leap forward for people who are concerned about the environment.”
For the trembling souls among us, officials advise taking laundry inside before the spraying; remaining indoors during it; and washing down outdoor property afterwards. Of course, they add, that’s only if you’re worried—which you needn’t be.
Despite the assurances, Peninsula residents are demanding more details. The day after the Seaside event, citizens again packed an informational session in Monterey. That night, a long queue of residents spoke against the plans at the Monterey City Council meeting—and it wasn’t on the agenda.
Councilmembers voted unanimously to ask the state for more time and information. Mayor Chuck Della Sala sent a letter to California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, Assemblyman John Laird and state Sen. Abel Maldonado, asking them to address residents’ concerns. In response, Kawamura put the spray plans on hold—although government officials say the spray may still happen as early as Sept. 5—and scheduled a regional meeting for the evening of Wed., Aug. 29, at the Monterey Conference Center, after the Weekly’s deadline.
If citizens’ questions are not answered to their satisfaction, Monterey councilmembers may ask for a court injunction to temporarily halt the spray plans. “I do not feel comfortable with the Peninsula being sprayed, from what I know at this point,” says Councilman Jeff Haferman. “I don’t know if the state’s going to be able to convince me otherwise on Wednesday night.”
Critical residents note a central contradiction to officials’ reasoning. On the one hand, they insist that the pheromone products are benign. They are EPA registered and approved, and according to the agency’s fact sheet, they pose no known danger to people or the environment.
“It’s interesting that there are people protesting, when these are the products that I would assume [famed ecologist] Rachel Carson would be dreaming of,” says Steve Hartmeier, president of product manufacturer Suterra, Inc.
On the other hand, the company’s own labels for both the OLR-F and LBAM-F formulas state that the products are “potentially harmful if swallowed, absorbed through skin, or inhaled.”
Hartmeier says that the EPA requires all pesticides of the lowest risk level to carry an identical warning. “These are boiler-plate precautions that are tied to the signal word ‘Caution,’ ” he says. “Does that mean that someone who defines himself as chemically sensitive would have a reaction? I don’t know.”
Both the OLR-F and LBAM-F formulas contain about 24 percent synthetic pheromone, 73 percent water and 3 percent “inert organic microcapsule” that controls a slow release of the volatile pheromone, Hartmeier says. He won’t disclose the inert ingredients, calling them proprietary, but he says the EPA and state Department of Pesticide Regulation have approved their use. About 7,000 pounds of the product will be used over the 60-square-mile spray zone—the equivalent of about 3 tablespoons per football field.
The pheromones won’t impact non-target insects such as butterflies or ladybugs, officials insist. But the question gets murkier when it comes to the apple moth’s closest relatives. The OLR-F formula was originally designed to target the omnivorous leafroller. But one of its two active ingredients impacts a variety of leafrollers, according to an EPA fact sheet—including, it turns out, the light brown apple moth.
The LBAM-F formula, which is registered for experimental use, contains one of the same pheromones as the OLR-F formula, plus another specific to the moth. Officials plan to use both products
on the Peninsula because there’s not enough LBAM-F available for such a large area, says CDFA spokesman Jay Van Rein.
The USDA’s environmental assessment states that the products could impact native leafrollers in addition to the targeted moth. “There are probably a dozen or more similar moths that are native,” Van Rein says.
The half-inch-long light brown apple moth, native to Australia, targets more than 250 kinds of broadleaf plants. According to the USDA, the pest can deform seedlings, injure fruit crops and make ornamental plants look ugly. Theoretically, the tiny moth could deal a whopping blow to California’s fruit, wine and nursery industries.
Since the moth was discovered in a Berkeley backyard in July 2006, researchers have trapped the pest in at least 11 California counties. Of roughly 7,000 trapped, about 400 were found in Monterey County and about 6,000 in Santa Cruz County.
In May, the USDA imposed quarantines on counties where the moth had been detected. In late July the EPA granted an emergency exemption to federal pesticide law, permitting the first aerial application of LBAM-F over a residential area. In August, the agency allocated $15 million for California’s eradication effort.
The feds considered applying twist-ties infused with the pheromone to plants on the ground—a tactic tried recently in Oakley—but they ultimately dismissed that alternative as too expensive for a large treatment area.
The Peninsula spray plan is only the beginning of a multi-county assault. “We’re going to start with outlier populations and then work in toward the highly infested areas,” Van Rein says. After spraying Monterey County, he says, officials will move to eradicate the denser moth population in Santa Cruz County, likely by plane.
Aerial sprays may continue periodically for the next several years if the moth persists.
In the end, this decision is not up to the public, USDA spokesman Watkins says. Under state and federal law, the USDA and the CDFA are charged with eradicating invasive pests. If officials don’t try the pheromone now, they may have to resort to more toxic chemicals.
“There have been some outlandish claims—totally unsupported by science,” Watkins says of the local backlash. “Does the public get to vote? No.”
But Assemblyman John Laird isn’t so sure that state and federal officials get to call all the shots. After several concerned constituents contacted him, he met with CDFA Secretary Kawamura to press for more public meetings.
“If the science isn’t on their side,” he says, “we have the power to force the issue.”