To trim or spray? The debate continues, but one thing is certain: the brush on this stretch of Route 643 is definitely overgrown.
A stretch of county road 643, otherwise known as Polo Grounds Road, is one of several county roads VDOT plans to spray with herbicide.
The controversy over the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plan to spray herbicide on Albemarle County roadsides continues to churn as the spraying dates— August 26 and 27— loom closer. Leading the fight against the chemical herbicides is Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Ann Mallek, who is pushing county residents to opt out, citing a lack of research into the chemicals used and their possible adverse effects on human health and the environment.
“The chemical, Krenite S, is designed for remote places and industrial roadways and timber properties where they want to kill any competing brush,” says Mallek. “[VDOT] is unwilling to mow the branches on the side of the road anymore because it costs too much and decided to spray poison all over the place instead.”
Mallek was alerted to the use of roadside herbicide spraying last summer when a constituent called her, concerned that a VDOT truck was spraying something on Sugar Hollow Road, where he owned land, and also near the Moormans River. The driver of the truck allegedly told the landowner that he was spraying Roundup to kill mosquitoes.
“That was a big red flag to me," says Mallek. "I don’t know why the driver said that, but it was concerning because Roundup is for plants, not mosquitoes. And it was right by the river."
Mallek tried to get answers about the incident from VDOT, which, she says, ignored her for six weeks until the contract was complete, then responded saying that for citizens to receive notification about herbicide spraying, all she had to do was ask. Frustrated, Mallek requested an investigation by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services into the qualifications and behavior of the truck drivers conducting the spraying, but, she says, after several months, investigators concluded that the drivers had acted according to regulations. Though Mallek disagrees with the finding that the drivers had done nothing wrong, she says there was one positive outcome from the situation.
“The result of this exchange was that citizens would receive notice [of spraying] and be allowed to opt out,” Mallek says. The resolution mandating that citizens be notified of all spraying was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last fall. In accordance with the resolution, VDOT announced their plans to spray this summer via press release on July 26.
With this summer’s herbicide spraying just around the corner, Mallek is hoping that residents along the spray route will decide to opt out. VDOT will mark land designated "opt-out" with small red reflective signs signaling the contractor to stop spraying.
While Mallek sees the opt-out option as a step in the right direction, she'd like the herbicide spraying eliminated entirely. But Lou Hatter, a spokesperson for VDOT, says the worry over the safety of the herbicide is unnecessary.
“This is a federally approved product; it’s been used in accordance with all the label directions, and it is being applied by certified herbicide applicators," he says, noting that VDOT contractors "follow all policy and label requirements. It is something that has been done across Virginia for many years.”
In an email exchange between Mallek and Joel DeNunzio, the residency administrator of the VDOT Charlottesville residency, DeNunzio also vouches for the safety of the herbicide and competency of the herbicide applicators.
“Krenite S is not to be applied to food or feed crops," DeNunzio wrote. "The contractor is directed to cut the sprayer off when crossing streams or near enough to a pond or crop to actually spray it.”
According to the product label warning, land on which Krenite S has been sprayed can not be used for food growing until a year after treatment.
The email also sheds some light on why spraying herbicide is preferable to manual trimming— at least from a budget standpoint. According to DeNunzio, the cost of brush spraying one mile of highway shoulder is $195, while the cost of mechanical cutting is $1,025.
Mallek, however, isn't swayed by the estimated expense.
“I think they could trim more significantly with the machines and do it less frequently," she says. "Also the cost [VDOT] is giving doesn't take into consideration possible damages or the real costs for the water and people potentially affected," Mallek says. "There is zero data about use around people."
While Mallek may be the most vocal opponent of spraying, she is not alone. She says several county residents have already told her that they have or plan to opt out of the herbicide spray on their properties. And even people who don't own land along the spray routes are concerned. Betty Mooney, a city resident and avid gardener and birdwatcher, is worried about the effect the herbicide may have on the ecosystem.
“This spraying could kill our honey bee population,” Mooney says, citing a study by University of Maryland and federal agriculture researchers that was reported in the Baltimore Sun on July 26. “It’s important that our community know about this and try to minimize it because it affects all of us.”