CHATHAM — Though they weren't ready to sign a check, selectmen last week gladly signed a letter once again opposing the use of pesticides to control vegetation along Eversource power line rights-of-way. The campaign is being organized by the group Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer (POCCA), which is also asking Cape towns to contribute to a legal fund.
Laura Kelley, president of POCCA, is visiting towns around the Cape to recruit support for the letter; earlier this month, Harwich selectmen opted not to take action on her request, though they may take up the matter in the next few weeks. Last year, a number of Cape towns signed similar letters and a few, including Orleans, contributed funds to support POCCA's efforts. Chatham has written letters of support for several years, but declined to joint other towns as an “aggrieved party” when legal proceedings began in 2016.
Eversource uses a variety of chemical pesticides to control vegetation under high-tension wires on the Cape, as part of a yearly operating plan filed with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. Kelley said of the five chemicals being used this year, only one is available to consumers: the active ingredient of Roundup.
“I know that the EPA allows these pesticides,” she said. And Kelley acknowledged that they have been unable to identify any individuals who have been directly sickened by the Eversource spraying. She said she knows that some would prefer to have POCCA advocate for the installation of monitoring wells under the power lines to determine whether the pesticides are present in the groundwater.
“By then, it's too late,” she said.
Kelley introduced POCCA's attorney, Bruce Taub of Orleans, who has been lobbying to obtain an adjudicatory hearing. Last year, a magistrate ruled that the organization had not met all of the legal requirements for such a hearing to take place. Taub said the effort will continue again this year. Selectman Dean Nicastro asked what the town's cost would be to join the legal effort.
Kelley said POCCA is asking towns to each contribute $15,000 to pay for Taub's services and the services of John Stark, an ecotoxicologist and professor at Washington State University. The cost per town would be lower if more than a few towns agree to contribute, Kelley said.
Board member Seth Taylor noted that the town is near the end of the Fiscal 2017 budget, and last-minute expenditures are difficult to fund. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith concurred, saying the budget is very tight.
Selectmen asked Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson to assess the risk to groundwater from Eversource's spraying.
“No one really knows,” he replied. Duncanson said the only way to answer that question is to monitor the groundwater in the area of the power lines, something that's not currently being done.
“Until that's resolved, this is going to be a battle back and forth between various groups and agencies,” he said. Duncanson argued that while Eversource uses licensed technicians to apply pesticide, private citizens are unregulated and can apply all sorts of chemicals with abandon, potentially doing much more damage to the aquifer.
Taub said POCCA will once again seek an adjudicatory hearing this year, though it is hard to predict what success they will have. The organization is examining the possibility of arguing that the pesticide applications are harmful to endangered species, a strategy that might be a “viable backdoor” to the effort to shut down spraying, he said.
“We're going to burn them with it,” Taub said of the endangered species approach.
Board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said he has supported POCCA's efforts for years, and he rejects the idea that towns should wait for evidence of contamination before acting.
“I think it's ludicrous and it's stupid,” he said. The fact that there is no proof of groundwater contamination shouldn't be used as justification of continued spraying, he added.
“Just keep doing it and wait for it to get contaminated?” Dykens asked. Better to find other ways to control vegetation under the power lines, he argued. “Do clear-cutting. Get goats in there,” he said. Dykens urged POCCA to consider pressing for change on the regional level rather than seeking piecemeal support from every town on Cape Cod, since the Cape's sole-source aquifer is a regional resource.
“Keep at it,” he advised Kelley.