Harwich Selectmen Withhold Action On Utility Spraying

By: William F. Galvin

Harwich selectmen declined to take action to oppose spraying along utility rights-of-way.

HARWICH — Selectmen withheld support for a request by Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer director Laura Kelley Monday night to have selectmen write a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) protesting planned herbicide spraying to keep vegetation down along power lines.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill stated at the beginning of the board's meeting that they would not be taking action on the request that evening because the documentation was not submitted in a timely manner. A few members of the board made clear their concerns about the request, however.

A year ago, selectmen rejected a request to provide a letter of support for legislation filed by then-senator Dan Wolf of Harwich that would have allowed local communities to enter into a no-spray agreement with utility EverSource. The company has been actively spraying herbicides along the power lines under a yearly operational plan (YOP) approved by MDAR.

Kelley said she sought to educate the community about the spraying with the hope of lessening the impact of the chemical use because of the Cape's sole-source aquifer. She cited EverSource's plan this year to spray in 10 communities on Cape and three on Martha's Vineyard. She asked selectmen to send a letter stating they are discouraged and do not approve of the spraying and asked the board to register as an aggrieved party.

She cited the efforts of the towns of Orleans, Eastham, Brewster and Dennis, which contributed $15,000 each last year to fight spraying. They hired Orleans attorney Bruce Taub, who brought the issue before an administrative magistrate with the state Division of Administrative Law Appeals.

Taub told selectmen Monday night the magistrate found in favor on three of the four aggrieved issues, but the magistrate wanted more than vague allegations on the harm to human beings. Taub said there is substantial data showing the harm to the environment, bees, snails and other wildlife worldwide, but they could not find anybody with specific health issues caused by the spraying.

“I really think we have a greater responsibility to protect our drinking water,” Kelley told selectmen. She urged the board to submit a letter to MDAR once it takes actions on the YOP. She said there is a 21-day comment period once that action is taken.

The main focus was on the use of glyphosate, one of five chemicals used by EverSource. Selectman Peter Hughes pointed out local cranberry growers also use the chemical. He asked Kelley if they win against EverSource whether they would go after the cranberry growers in Harwich. Kelley said their mission is to do one thing and that is to stop EverSource from spraying.

Selectman Jannell Brown asked if POCCA was putting forth alternatives to spraying, such as using goats to eat vegetation under the power lines. Kelley said there are many alternatives, including hand-cutting and mowing.

Selectman Angelo LaMantia wanted to know what had changed this year. Is there new scientific information? Are there tests showing the problem is what the group is saying it is? he asked. There is a lot of information out there, Kelley responded, citing impacts to bees and fish.

There was discussion about testing after spraying to better understand the impacts to the ground. Town Administrator Christopher Clark said when he was serving as acting water superintendent a couple of years ago, he had testing done after the spraying around public drinking wells and there were “no trace elements of these chemicals in the wells.” He said those tests cost $5,000 so the town has responded appropriately.

Certified organic cranberry grower Leo Cakounes said he manages 65 acres of bogs. He said goats don't work; they eat the vegetation but don't kill the plants.

“Goats are a feel good effort,” Cakounes said. “It's very difficult to control weeds without chemicals.”

Cakounes said he is a licensed pesticide applicator in the commonwealth and he has the right to purchase and use the chemicals. He supported the use of the chemical over mowing and cutting of vegetation. Mowing and clear cutting, he explained, devastates rabbits and turtles and ruins wildlife habitat. He said the power lines could be a “Cape corridor of meadows,” which the Cape does not have any more.

“I feel confident the products NSTAR (EverSource) uses are acceptable,” Cakounes said. “I don't want my tax dollars to pay for an attorney arguing this case. If he wins, then he comes after me.”

“The science increasingly suggests these chemicals are being mixed in ways they've never been tested,” Taub said. He stressed the importance of keeping the review active, and pointed out next year will be the five-year review of the operational plan and it will be done in much greater detail.

Kelley requested a place on the board's agenda in two weeks. MacAskill said after the meeting if a member of the board wants to make a motion on this issue, that's fine, but he did not expect additional discussion with POCCA.