(Flickr John 6536)

(Flickr John 6536)

Amid some lingering concerns, an Outside company is set to spray herbicide on parts of the train tracks outside Skagway later this month. The company hired for the task recently changed the brand of weed killer it’ll use because of local restrictions.

Skagway borough manager Scott Hahn says he has no hesitation about the one-day spraying of intrusive and obstructive weeds on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad tracks. The company, DBi Services out of Pennsylvania, announced in late May that they would no longer use Roundup, which includes a chemical banned by the municipality. Instead they’ll use Oust, made by DuPont. Its main ingredient, sulfometuron methyl, is not on the Skagway Borough’s list of unapproved herbicides.  Here’s Hahn.

“I think anyone that hears the word herbicide, they get nervous in general,” he says. “There’s nothing more being done, basically we’ve done what’s required. We informed them what’s prohibited and apparently they’re going to comply with that. I haven’t heard anybody say anything about meetings or that the city should do anything different, or anything else.”

The issue came up a couple of years ago when White Pass announced its intention to spray the tracks with Roundup. But there was public outcry because of fear that Roundup’s active ingredient is carcinogenic. So, White Pass suspended the spraying indefinitely. Shortly after that, an ordinance was introduced and approved by the assembly to limit which chemicals could be sprayed. DBi posted its intention to once again spray Roundup on the tracks a few weeks ago, which spurred concern at a recent assembly meeting. The company was informed of the municipal code revision, and together with White Pass, decided on using Oust instead.

Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. said at Thursday’s assembly meeting, using a different agent on the weeds is better, but still not great.

“In some sense that’s a good thing, but in others, it’s still a concern because the municipality has waivers regarding discharges in the area for our drinking water.”

Burnham says any mass discharge might force the borough to give up those waivers and have to start testing the drinking water more regularly.

“And even potentially have to build a treatment plant. So, there are potential grave costs to this intent.”

Skagway resident Gary Hansen also voiced his concern at the meeting.

“I understand the economic factors at play here,” Hansen says. “I’m sure it’s a lot cheaper for them to spray rather than use mechanical means to spray the rather use mechanical means to remove the weeds, but I question the value judgment they’re putting money ahead potential health hazard.”

But White Pass’s Tyler Rose says mechanical means can’t be used to remove the weeds in this case.

“There are several issues as far as vegetative growth in the right-of-way,” Rose says. “One of which is just for visual inspection and the ability to see. But one of the larger issues is having sufficient drainage and support for the roadbed itself. Weed whacking and mechanical means taking that away across the top don’t meet those goals because you still have the roots inside of the roadbed, so that’s where it’s problematic.”

Rose says the area in question is a federal right-of-way, so technically White Pass is not required to adhere to borough code. But, they will follow local rules because they want to ease residents’ concerns.

The need for the weed abatement comes from the Federal Railroad Administration. Karin Hendrickson works for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Pesticide Control Program. She says weeds that obstruct the path of the train can cause hazardous conditions, especially beefier varieties like willow.

“They have very strict requirements about vegetation and what can be growing on the tracks – there are safety reasons and maintenance reasons,” she explains. “With our long summers and our growing season, the vegetation gets a root-hold and you can’t keep it within their specifications easily.”

According to Hendrickson, the chemicals used in Oust are not necessarily more benign than those in Roundup, they just act in a different way. The ingredients in Oust don’t hang around as long, which can be good and bad.

“However that may mean that you have to spray more of something because, you know, six weeks later you’ve got more plants growing. Whereas something that sticks around a lot longer, it may work longer, meaning you have to apply less. So there are tradeoffs to different products.”

White Pass and DBi are hosting public forum to address herbicide questions on June 16 at the AB Hall from 5 – 7 p.m. Spraying will happen for one day during the following week, though Rose says a final date has not yet been set.