Falmouth Selectmen Refuse to Ask NStar to Halt Herbicide Program

Dennis Galavan NSTAR spokesmanCHRISTOPHER KAZARIAN/ENTERPRISE - Dennis Galavan NSTAR spokesman

After more than an hour of debate on the potential impacts NStar’s spraying of herbicides could have on Cape Cod’s sole-source aquifer, selectmen elected not to send a letter to either the utility or the state objecting to its use of the chemicals.

And when the discussion was coming to a close, chairman Brent V.W. Putnam complained that it was a waste of their time as it took the board’s focus away from items at the local level. “We spent an hour listening to these presentations,” he said. “Whatever we do or say here tonight will have absolutely no impact on what NStar does... It is something that is regulated by the state and the EPA. Spending an hour of our time doing this is quite frankly a waste of our time.”

Mr. Putnam suggested that, if residents are concerned about the possibility of NStar spraying herbicides to maintain its rights-of-way in and around its power lines, they write letters to the Department of Agricultural Resources, which is taking public comments on the issue through Monday, November 4.

He also was not as concerned about NStar’s use of pesticides as others were, noting that when he was a member of the conservation commission, they were approved as a way to remove and control invasive species. “Managing vegetation is not as easy as saying there’s something else out there,” he said. “I would venture to guess that if there was something else out there better than this plan, we’d be seeing it already.”

Managing vegetation is not as easy as saying there’s something else out there. 

                      Chairman Brent Putnam

Selectman Kevin E. Murphy was also in support of NStar’s right to use herbicides, noting what happened in 2011 when the utility angered residents with the removal of vegetation in Hatchville with some arguing it was too aggressive. “If they continue to clear cut, we know it has outraged folks,” he said. “Or we could merely try to take the conservative approach and let them use herbicides on species that could potentially put the folks in this community out of power.”

As science moves forward, he said, there may be alternatives to NStar using herbicides, but until that point he did not see any harm in allowing the practice. “In the interim they should be allowed to take aggressive action at only species that are invasive and cause problems,” he said. “For those of us who have a yard, occasionally we have to use a herbicide. I don’t doubt there may be some minimal risk, but I don’t think it is an issue.”

Siding with the two was selectman Douglas H. Jones who admitted to having concerns about herbicides getting into the water, but had confidence in NStar, particularly since one of its senior arborists is Paul Sellers of West Falmouth. Both selectmen Mary (Pat) Flynn and Rebecca Moffitt were in favor of sending NStar a letter asking them to abandon its proposal to use herbicides to maintain its utility lines.

Capewide Concern

The board had placed the item on its agenda at the request of Laura Kelley of Eastham, director of Protect Our Cape Cod Aquifer (POCCA).

NStar is planning to use those chemicals to control weeds along 150 miles of its right-of-way passages throughout Cape Cod. “I love NStar and am addicted to their electricity, but I don’t want them using herbicides to keep the lights on,” Ms. Kelley said, arguing that there are other forms of vegetation management NStar could use to control weeds instead of herbicides.

She pointed out that 14 of Cape Cod’s 15 towns have agreed, writing letters to NStar requesting it abandon its herbicide plan. NStar’s yearly operational plan calls for the spraying of herbicides in 11 municipalities on Cape Cod this year, including Bourne, Barnstable, Falmouth, Sandwich, Chatham, Brewster, Harwich and Martha’s Vineyard.

Ms. Kelley was fearful that the toxins NStar uses could harm the health of both Cape residents and wildlife.

Some of the concerns she raised about NStar’s vegetative management plan is that it does not cap the amount of herbicides it can use; there are no details as to which mixtures of chemicals it will be using; and there are no limitations to the number of times it can spray per year.

“Granted homeowners may be allowed to use them currently, but that doesn’t mean we should allow more on our sandy soil at a time when we are talking about reducing our use of fertilizers,” she said. “We should be working toward lessening nitrogen and assorted risks in our drinking water. We should be coming together as a community to protect our natural resource.”

Both NStar spokesman Dennis D. Galvan and senior arborist William Hayes were allowed to present their case for being allowed to move forward with the spraying of herbicides as part of the company’s integrated vegetation management (IVM) program.

Mr. Galvan noted that NStar had agreed to a self-imposed moratorium on the use of herbicides since 2009, shortly after a meeting at Nauset Regional High School in which the public spoke passionately against the practice.

Since that time, he said, NStar has worked with the Cape Cod Commission as part of an ad hoc committee created to look at herbicide and pesticide use on the Cape overall with a specific focus on the region’s aquifer and the utility’s IVM program.

“After months of intensive meetings, the committee drafted a white paper in support of the IVM program,” Mr. Galvan said.

After that point, he said, NStar began negotiations with GreenCape in hopes of coming up with a mutually agreeable plan to both sides in which the utility would reduce the use of  herbicides. “Unfortunately that proposal was rejected, but we still have some hope there’s something we can work on a we move into the future,” he said.

Plans to Resume Spraying

In August NStar notified 11 Cape towns of its intention to use herbicides to maintain its utility lines this year. That began a 45-day comment period which the Department of Agricultural Resources then extended to November allowing the public to weigh in on the proposal.

While there may be concerns about the herbicides, Mr. Galvan stressed that Massachusetts is one of the heavily regulated states when it comes to the chemicals. And he said that NStar would be using less than 1 percent of all herbicides used on Cape Cod, noting that cranberry growers, golf courses and homeowners are the primary users.

“I appreciate the passion of those who oppose what we are doing,” he said. “I know they feel they are [justified] in their position, but we too feel we know what we are doing.”

I love NStar and am addicted to their electricity, but I don’t want them using herbicides to keep the lights on. 

                                         Laura Kelley

“You’ve given us a lot of technical information, but I’m waiting for you to say we have something other than chemical pesticides and I didn’t hear it,” Ms. Moffitt said.

Mr. Hayes replied to Ms. Moffitt’s concerns, noting that other forms of vegetation management, such as mowing, uses petroleum products that are harmful to the environment. And it is not effective, as plants that are mowed come back thicker and larger than before.

He defended the use of herbicides, referencing a letter from Thomas W. French, assistant director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who wrote that the spot application of herbicides can effectively control troublesome vegetation. “While mechanical management plays an important role, the technique is not always adequate and may exacerbate the problem,” Mr. Hayes said, in reading Dr. French’s statement.

That was not enough to convince Ms. Moffitt, who asked, “how can you accomplish what you need to do without pesticides ending up in our ponds?”

“It is a matter of moderation,” Mr. Hayes said. “Things at low doses won’t hurt you, but at higher doses they will. Pesticides are the same thing. We are regulated by scientists who have shown what the proper mixes and proper applications we can use and where and in what rights-of-way we can use them. We trust professionals in their field of expertise so we can go out and do our job.”


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  • jrhild

    It is not clear to me why Falmouth council voted against a letter stating Falmouth doesn't want Nstar to spray toxic herbicides on the Cape. Mr. Galvan statement of "...we know what we are doing" is an echo from the past. We used agent Orange in Vietnam and we all know how that turned out!
  • jrhild

    Chairman Brent V.W. Putnam, if you think listening to people about protecting the Cape’s only source of fresh water from toxic herbicides is a waste of time; wait till you see how much ignorance costs in cleaning up the mess.