When the “Curious ‘loophole’ ” piece about DOT spraying roadsides with toxic chemicals appeared in The Gazette on Sept. 7, the usual responses were expected — from the environmentalist choir agreeing with the subject, and the economic boosters who advocate using every last resource dismissing the subject as the hysterical ravings of an idealist. (I often wonder if the critics would use the word “hysterical” if my name were Fred or Jack.)
Imagine my surprise when I got a call from the state Department of Transportation’s Region 9 environmental specialist, James W. Buck, asking to meet in Cobleskill about the article.
I agreed, of course, and went to the meeting with more questions and additional information about herbicides and pesticides from many sources, including NOFA-NY, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, that certifies our farm.
I was even more surprised when greeted by the Region 9 public information officer, David Hamburg; the DOT’s vegetation and environmental program manager, John Rowen; and the resident engineer for Schoharie/Delaware North Division of Operations, Robert D. Richter.
They were most cordial, and we talked for almost three hours about the DOT’s practice of spraying roadsides to control vegetation that might endanger the sight lines and safety of drivers and vehicles.
Mr. Buck pointed out several minor errors in the piece, such as the cost-per-mile of spraying (it is for the herbicide only, not the total personnel and vehicular costs) and the notification and signage practices that only apply to roads on which they don’t have a right-of-way.
This meeting represented a big chunk of time for these four gentlemen, at no small cost to the DOT, so I was more than a little puzzled about its purpose. After all, I’m just a retired person who has an organic farm.
I was pleased when it seemed the great state of New York would actually listen to one of its taxpaying citizens who had a complaint. But two suits from Binghamton, one from Albany and one from Cobleskill? That seemed like overkill.
At the end of the meeting, my last question was, “Why am I here?” Or, more precisely, “What is it you want me to take away from this?”
Other than me making a small suggestion not to spray along school property where the grass is mowed already or them reassuring me that their glyphosate toxin does indeed have a four-week lifespan and then is released as CO2 and is perfectly safe, it was more a pleasant conversation than an exchange of data.
Of Mr. Buck’s statement that the pre-emergent spray has a half-life up to 180 days and then is harmless, I got no answer about its use after the broadleaf plants are already growing. The theme seemed to be that the prime motive is safety, not cost.
Putting a whole road crew out to weed-whack, involving stopping one lane of traffic while a group cuts those pesky tall weeds and removes dangerous foliage, apparently is the only alternative to one truck and a guy with a spray nozzle.
The gentlemen offered to answer any questions in case I did a follow-up piece, and the public information officer suggested he would be pleased to read it, just for informational accuracy, before it was submitted. Since The Gazette already supplies an editor, a second opinion was declined.
As I’ve thought about this experience with a large state governmental agency, with 11 districts and an environmental specialist in each one, which works with the state and New York City environmental offices to protect state and city water reservoirs, and one which regularly trains its employees in the use of weed killer safety, it occurred to me that overkill is a relevant concept.
Some farmers spray regularly in large quantities, while others think one drop of plant poison is overkill. Activists in Cooperstown have successfully lobbied the DOT to stop spraying the east road along Otsego Lake, a huge concession. So why do they spray everywhere else? To make sure? Of what?
As the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, has stated, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and the last generation that can do anything about it.”
Many people in New York are doing something about it, no matter how small. There are human rights and there are human wrongs, and the difference will become apparent very soon.
Karen Cookson is an organic farmer in Sharon Springs and a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion pages.