Editorial: Why is Caltrans still spraying toxics along roadside?


Opponents of roadside herbicide spraying in San Mateo County are watching closely as Caltrans reviews its weed-removal policies affecting the county's state highways, including Highway 84. What the state transportation agency is actually up to with its weed-abatement program is unclear at this point, but there appears to be some movement on Caltrans' part to ease away from its controversial program of "broadcast" spraying toxic chemicals to kill weeds – a practice that carries potential risk to people, wildlife and the watershed.

The practice has been banned in a number of counties – including San Mateo County – but the ban applies only to areas directly under the counties' jurisdiction. Although Caltrans has honored the wishes of other counties and is using alternative weed-control methods, the agency, for reasons it has not made clear, hasn't halted the practice locally.

After announcing last year that it would conduct a pilot program in which it would spray herbicides on one side of Highway 84 between Portola Road in Woodside and the coast, and mow, mulch or otherwise mechanically remove weeds on the other side, Caltrans delayed the program, and now, according to an agency spokeswoman, it is "examining several options that might allow a reduction in the amount of spraying within the pilot program."

Some herbicide-spraying opponents say they are "cautiously optimistic" that Caltrans is considering other means of weed abatement. But many are also frustrated over the agency's heel-dragging in responding decisively to the call to stop a practice that threatens public health. The county's supervisors acted in 2012 to ban spraying, citing the risk to human health and the environment; a grassroots citizens group, Protect Our Watershed, has been fighting the practice. What is behind Caltrans' resistance?

That question cries out for an answer, particularly given that the agency has been using alternative methods in other counties, such as Marin, with success. As state Sen. Jerry Hill puts it, Caltrans has "made the decision elsewhere to discontinue spraying. We raised the idea – why is this different? They can't really justify using the spraying when there are alternatives available."

Weed-control methods that don't include spraying toxics into the public space include mulching, mowing, and revegetating with native plants. Patty Mayall of Protect Our Watershed noted that the community affected by Highway 84 spraying can offer help with removing invasive plant species and helping to replace them with native plants that will crowd out invasive weeds.

All eyes are on Caltrans now as the agency rethinks its weed-control methods in the county. A Caltrans spokeswoman told the Almanac that the agency's current review of its practices wasn't a result of public pressure – a statement that smacks of arrogance but is hard to take seriously. Public pressure must continue. Caltrans should be pressed to answer why, if it continues to spray toxic chemicals in the public space, it is doing so when alternative methods of controlling weeds are available.

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3 people like this
Posted by local resident
a resident of Woodside: other
on Feb 10, 2016 at 7:08 pm

Wonderful editorial clearly explaining the long, sad saga of Caltrans' roadside spraying of toxic chemicals in San Mateo county's wildlife and watershed corridors, along highways 84, 35 and 1 . Thank you so much to this paper for putting the spotlight on this important public health issue -- specially at this time, when mounting public exposure and continued local pressure may persuade CT to finally make an honest and serious good-faith effort to change their practices.
This public agency has for years ignored local residents' requests for alternative non-poisonous methods; ignored offers to involve the local community in the effort to control invasive vegetation; lied about their spraying operations: for example, denying they sprayed along coastal highway 1, then being caught in the act; often failed to post signs or alert local residents and motorists when spraying would occur, as along highways 35 and 1; and giving contradictory information about their practices: for example, while on the one hand some CT officials assure local residents and farmers that "No Spray" signs will be respected by spray trucks, other CT officials renege on that assurance and proclaim the signs mean nothing.... This is a public agency paid for with public taxes and, as such, should not arrogantly turn a deaf ear and employ all manner of delay and confusion tactics to avoid its responsibility to honor the legitimate concerns of the tax payers who fund it and the citizens it purportedly serves.
Thank you again, The Almanac!

2 people like this
Posted by Nancy Hewitt
a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2016 at 6:45 am

Isn't it sad, that in 2016 we are still dealing with issues like this. Especially to an area, so lovely with such eco-diversity, as San Mateo County. I was a resident for 11 years and still miss it. This does bring up the question of "how does my current community deal w/ this issue"? I will pay more attention to this and hope for the best in both. Many thanks to Patty Mayall and Protect Our Watershed for all the work on documentation and education that has gone on for years. Bravo Almanac (!) for addressing this issue!

2 people like this
Posted by Rhea Sampson
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 11, 2016 at 10:36 am

I salute Patty Mayall and her dedicated friends for continuing to bring this sensitive environmental issue to our attention. We need to protect our precious wildlife and biodiversity. We can find a solution to land management that doesn't involve broadcast, herbicide spraying. Mowing and cutting for weed abatement is a very sound approach even though it will take more effort. It is worth the price to preserve safely our precious resources human, plant and animal.

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