By Margaret Friedenauer, KHNS News

The Skagway Assembly was scheduled to take a whack at banning pesticides on borough lands. However, the move has lost some urgency now that White Pass Yukon Railroad announced it has suspended its plans to use pesticides along its railroad track this summer.

The topic of herbicide and pesticide use in the Skagway borough came up recently because of White Pass Yukon Railroad planned to use a one-time application of chemicals this summer along its rail to control vegetation. It’s a federal requirement in both the United States and Canada to keep rail tracks clear. In years past White Pass used mechanical means to mow down vegetation. But this year, the company wanted to use a common commercial herbicide mixture to do the job.

Because White Pass is a private company working mainly on private property, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said it didn’t need any permitting or permission to use herbicides. White Pass President John Finlayson reiterated that in his June 30th public letter, presented to a joint meeting of the assembly’s Public Safety and Health, Dducation and Welfare committees. Finlayson writes that herbicide use is compliant with the law in both Alaska and Yukon and that the company believes herbicide application is not only the industry standard but is safe for its employees, communities and the environment.

But, Finlayson said at the committee meeting, that the company was following industry standard when it announced a spraying plan and decided it had not given organic or other methods of vegetation control enough research. He said the company wants to be a good neighbor in Skagway and so decided to indefinitely suspend its plan to use herbicides for vegetation control.

Already there are 10 letters included in Thursday’s meeting packet voicing opposition to White Pass’s herbicide spraying plan. And several of those also express support for the municipality restricting the use of herbicides borough-wide. That’s what the ordinance up for introduction Thursday would do.

Assemblyman Steve Burnham authored the ordinance last year when the issue of the state using herbicides came up. The state revamped the process it must go through to use herbicides along roads and near airports. Several communities across Southeast – including Skagway, Haines and Petersburg – opposed that process change, saying it limited public and local input on the use of herbicides in communities. Burnham began working on the ordinance then, although in its current form, it would not ban herbicide use on state property. A local government can take over maintenance of state roads and airports by a public vote – but the responsibilities that would go along with that would include plowing, maintenance, resurfacing and other things, but at the expense of the local government.

What the ordinance would do is ban the sale and use of chemical pesticides and herbicides that are not listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute. That’s a national nonprofit organization that determines what products should be allowed in certified organic production and processing and works in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. It also lists products for use under the Canadian Organic Standards.

The ordinance would ban conventional herbicides like Roundup and Aquamaster. And the ban would be borough-wide, including on private property. Local stores currently carrying those non-organic herbicides would have to stop selling them.

Burnham said there are several details to work out, if the ordinance gains support, including how to phase it in, a date it would take effect and how to enforce it.
The ordinance does allow for chemical herbicide use in emergency cases, like infestations. To get approval for an emergency use, the borough manager or someone they designate would determine if an emergency use was warranted. Under the ordinance, that person would have to become licensed and certified by the Alaska DEC or the Environmental Protection Agency.

And the reason for the proposed regulation? Burnham says many people realize Skagway lies in a narrow valley and that the town’s aquifer is fed by several water sources in town. Any of those sources could become contaminated through herbicide or pesticide runoff. And many residents believe there is vast and sound science behind the studies expressing concern about the dangers of pesticides.

Burnham said the committee members present at Monday’s meeting voted to move the ordinance to the assembly, which will take it up on Thursday (July 3) evening.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons License, Mike Mozart