Q. A friend recently called my attention to the fact that our township had sprayed weed killers from a truck along the side of a stream at a local ball field. The vegetation was brown and wilted for quite a distance, and a wide variety of plants seem to have been affected, including a neighbor's arborvitaes on the opposite bank. A dog was nosing around in the water, and I noticed a couple of dead frogs. There is also a playground about 100 yards downstream. Is this safe? If not, what can I do about it?
--- Larry in Bucks County, PA
A. These are the exact dangers I always warn about when chemical herbicides are used: amphibians being killed, children and pets being exposed, non-target plants affected…it's an absolute Trifecta of herbicide side-effects.
It is certainly NOT safe. And my first thought was that you should go to the Township, demand to know exactly what they sprayed under the Right to Know Act and then read the product labels to see if the pesticides were legally registered for use near water, or if any other restrictions may have been violated. But my old friend Jay Feldman, Executive Director of "Beyond Pesticides", a fabulous nonprofit organization (that used to be called the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides), tells me that every state has different rules and regulations regarding citizens' rights in these matters—and Pennsylvania has no Right to Know law in this situation.
So you could go to the township building, ask what was used and they could legally refuse to tell you. There's also no requirement that they post notices before or after spraying. The only way you'd be able to know to keep your dogs and kids away would be to look for brown vegetation and dead frogs.
Luckily, there are some remedies—or at least methods of reporting and complaint—but they vary from state to state. The drop down menu in the "Information Services" link at the Beyond Pesticides website includes a choice simply called 'states' that takes you to a map; click on your state and you'll find out what the policies are. In Pennsylvania, for instance, there is an official IPM—Integrated Pest Management—policy for schools, but otherwise there are no state or local policies on pesticide use.
At first glance, that makes it seem as if Pennsylvanians can't do anything unless a school is involved. But it turns out that we do have some options. Also under that 'state' link is a 'government contacts' section that identifies the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture as the state's pesticide enforcement agency, with the name of the Director and his contact information. Jay told me that he's the person to make an official complaint to, and he's supposed to follow up on it. So I called that office, left a voice message, and got a very prompt return call from one of their enforcement specialists, who explained that the township does have to tell HIM what they used, and whether the person who did the spraying was properly licensed and such. And if the homeowner with the dying trees complains, they'll come and take samples from his property and evaluate the damage. Jay added that really concerned individuals can also contact the Federal EPA's regional office, which is also listed on the state page.
And while Pennsylvania doesn't require any pre-spray warnings or those little flags to be posted after spraying, there are posting requirements and other restrictions in New York and many other states. And some states do have local Right to Know laws. But even without a Right to Know law, I'd still start by going to the township building, stating my concerns and seeing how reasonable they might be. There's no law against them telling me what they used. And I could also urge my local legislators to enact new policies, like disclosure and posting requirements.
It turns out that such requirements don't necessarily have to be statewide. The State Legislature can pass regulations of course, but so can individual counties and townships. It's Democracy on a stick; all it takes is concerned citizens calling or visiting their elected representatives and attending township meetings to ask that changes be made—like having weeds controlled mechanically, as they are in my little community.
We're very lucky; the only thing our road crews spray is paint to make the lines down the center of the roads. They use big mowers and brush cutters to control weeds and overgrowth. And it works great—the roads are kept nice and clear, the roots of the plants stay alive to manage rainwater and prevent erosion, we have lots of frogs and toads, and nobody's garden or landscape plants get hammered if the wind changes.
And everyone can have the same piece of mind; they may just have to make a little noise to achieve it.