A recent violation of Whatcom County's "no-spray" rules for roadside weed control was discovered by a County Council member, who said the council would like to re-evaluate its use of herbicides this fall.
The county must keep toxic weed killers away from sensitive areas such as streambeds, and its stated goal is to find ways to reduce the amount of chemicals used.
Council Chairman Carl Weimer said he wants to make sure the weed program's rules and goals are being met.
"Are we really trying hard to ramp our use down?" Weimer said in an interview Thursday, June 26. The council also will look this fall at whether the spray program is getting enough oversight, Weimer said, "so mess-ups like Ten Mile Creek don't happen again."
Weimer was walking his dog on Northwest Road earlier this month when he saw a sign posted by the county Public Works Department at Ten Mile Creek, saying the area had been sprayed with Roundup and other chemicals on June 5.
Roundup is Monsanto's brand name for glyphosate, a chemical the company developed and marketed into the most widely used herbicide in the world. County rules prohibit spraying weed killer within 160 feet of a fish-bearing stream, Weimer said.
Public Works staff admitted, Weimer said in an email, that they were "not closely following county protocol for 'no-spray' areas."
"They also pointed out that even though they had sprayed in an incorrect area according to the county's conservative vegetation management plan, the herbicides that had been applied '(were) still a legal application for that site, according to the labels for those particular herbicides,'" Weimer said.
Weimer and other officials with the county and the city of Bellingham said the two governments are conservative with herbicide use on roadsides. The county's annual glyphosate use has declined since it peaked at 270 gallons in 2002.
In the past three years, glyphosate quantities went from 95.5 gallons in 2011 to 30.5 gallons in 2013, although equipment issues shortened the roadside spraying season last year.
In 2012, the last full spray season, the county used 73.5 gallons of glyphosate on 398 lane-miles of county road.
Given that the county manages 974 miles of road, or 1,948 lane-miles, the spray program two years ago covered 20 percent of the road system.
About 450 lane-miles are always off limits to sprayers because the county has designated no-spray areas that include Lummi Island and the Lake Whatcom watershed.
The county's overall spray program in 2014 used six different chemicals that are acceptable to county Public Works for being low in toxicity and more effective than alternatives.
The chemicals are all designed to attack the parts of plant systems not shared by animals, so in realistic doses they aren't likely to harm people or other animals, said Allan Felsot, professor of entomology and environmental toxicology at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
Bellingham avoids using herbicides of any type, said Mike Olinger, the city's maintenance superintendent. Whatcom County Jail crews are weeding the hard-to-maintain tree wells in the city, an approach that's getting a trial run this year, Olinger said.
"We're trying to avoid spraying anything that we don't need to," he said. "Most of our decision is based around public opinion. Our community is pretty much anti-spray anything, so we try to limit the amount, if we use it at all."
Bellingham has done no roadside weed spraying yet this year, Olinger said.
"We'll evaluate the use of the offender crew, and see where that gets us," he said.
Last year, Olinger said, the city used 15.9 gallons of glyphosate, less than what the county has used annually.
By comparison, Skagit County Public Works in 2013 used 200 gallons of glyphosate to control roadside weeds, said Cliff Butler, Skagit County's road operations manager. That county manages about 1,600 lane-miles.
Glyphosate's wide use among farmers and the controversy it attracts have made it among the most thoroughly studied herbicides in the world.
"It's become conflated with Monsanto," Felsot said. "The wider toxicology literature (on glyphosate) arose with the rise of genetically engineered soybeans."
The science on glyphosate is so politically charged — and in some cases industry funded — that it’s difficult for governments to make informed decisions about how much of the herbicide to use.
Environmentalists' opposition to glyphosate, or Roundup, has been heightened by its connection to Monsanto and the company's crop seeds, which were genetically engineered to be Roundup resistant. The introduction of genetically modified soybeans in 1996, followed by corn and other crops, has largely contributed to the eightfold increase in agricultural glyphosate use from 1992 to 2007, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A recent batch of studies on glyphosate has concluded it could be harmful to people or the environment. Scientists have found residue of the chemical in air, surface water and animal tissue. Two studies demonstrated that glyphosate plus an ingredient added to help it penetrate the plant damaged human cells and disrupted hormone functioning in laboratory testing.
These studies have raised doubts among county leaders and grave concerns among activists.
"The science is still developing, and better testing for things like byproducts, multiple chemical interactions and endocrine (hormone) disruptions need to be done," Weimer said.
Felsot, the WSU professor, is a harsh critic of the recent studies. But his resume casts doubt on Felsot’s own conclusions.
The rivalry between Felsot and Gilles-Eric Seralini, the author of some of the recent studies, illustrates how difficult it is for nonscientists to be confident in their knowledge of the risks of herbicides, even if they are reading the peer-reviewed articles — the gold standard of published science.
“I don’t know how this stuff gets published,” Felsot said of Seralini’s research. “It took me 10 minutes to realize how terribly reviewed it was.”
Felsot read Seralini’s work on cell death or damage in the laboratory for this article.
"The blood levels that Seralini gives to the cell — it's several orders of magnitude more than what's found in blood from attempted suicides (from drinking glyphosate)," Felsot said. "His studies aren't meaningful."
What about glyphosate detected in the water and air, even at some distance from the fields where it's sprayed? And what about the glyphosate found in cows?
"I'm sorry, I have to express my astonishment when scientists claim these are major finds," Felsot said. "I fail to see what the big issues are, other than we have highly sensitive analytical instruments."
Felsot was asked what motivated Seralini.
"He doesn't like Roundup. He doesn’t like glyphosate. … He doesn't like genetically engineered," Felsot said. "I think he sees himself as a white knight. He’s going to save ourselves from ourselves. … Fine. Maybe I’m the black knight, I don’t know."
The Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce pesticide use, wouldn't argue. The group posted on its website Felsot's resume, which lists the chemical companies, including Chevron, Union Carbide and Imperial Chemical Industries, that funded Felsot's research from 1982 to 1994.
Felsot said his research has had no funding for the past several years. However, he wrote a report published in 2012 that supported pesticide use for the American Council on Science and Health. That nonprofit was funded by Monsanto and other chemical companies, according to Pesticide Action Network. The council’s donors are not publicly available.
The latest science still has the attention of some County Council members, including Weimer and Ken Mann.
"I am still concerned," Mann said in a text on Friday, June 27. He was one of the council members who, during a meeting June 3 that included public comment, had reservations about the county's glyphosate use.
There may not be sufficient reason to change county policy on glyphosate until next year, when the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union are expected to release new rulings on the chemical.
"I am interested in waiting for the 2015 EPA and EU reports," Mann wrote.