Officials say no problems so far with spraying herbicides on arundo
By Daryl Kelley
Responding to community concerns that spraying a toxic herbicide to kill giant Ventura River reeds has sickened workers and residents, Ventura County officials told about 50 Ojai area residents this week that they’re closely monitoring the spraying, and that they’ve confirmed no problems so far.
“We don’t have evidence of workers getting sick,” county watershed official Jeff Pratt told an audience at Chaparral Auditorium on Tuesday evening. Nor have any of 60 tests detected the poisonous herbicide in water, officials said.
But Pratt pledged to investigate every citizen complaint and post the results on a county web site, matilijadam.org.
“We’ve heard from the community that they haven’t been involved enough,” Pratt said.
So as the eradication of towering non-native arundo reeds continues from Matilija Canyon to Baldwin Road, Pratt said the county wants feedback from the community. Officials have begun hosting public meetings, with the next one set for Aug. 7. And officials asked residents to immediately report problems.
But three Matilija Canyon residents told county officials that they’ve been sickened by the spraying of a powerful chemical, similar to that in the weed killer, Roundup, on reeds in Matilija Canyon.
“I was driving through the canyon when they were doing heavy spraying,” resident Patty Pagaling elaborated in an interview. “I went through a drift of it, and I became nauseous and headachy. I don’t get headaches very often. It was disturbing.”
Her son and his girlfriend have moved from Matilija Canyon until the spraying is complete, Pagaling said. And a neighbor described a June 24 incident in which a drift of spray entered her car. “She said she felt like her throat was on fire,” Pagaling said.
Another speaker, an Ojai environmental physician, insisted the county is not taking the threat that residents could develop cancer or Parkinson’s disease from the spraying seriously enough.
A Meiners Oaks resident said that the community’s water district is not testing for the chemical in its drinking water supplies. Another resident said bullfrogs have turned up dead after spraying.
And another resident pointed out that the European country of Denmark has restricted the use of the spray after tests found the toxic chemical, glyphosate, in groundwater.
County officials said they were studying the restrictions by the Danes and would report soon about the issue on the county web site.
County biologist Pam Lindsey said glyphosate is approved for spraying in water, but that the county does not spray it within 15 feet of water or 50 feet of an orchard. Nor do workers have to wear masks when applying it, because it can be safely used with only protective gloves and boots, officials said.
But several residents were not convinced.
“These guys just shine it on,” said Dr. Robin Bernhoft, who specializes in the effects of toxic chemicals on human health.
The Ojai physician said in an interview that he switched from performing surgeries after he became ill from supposedly safe chemicals used in operating rooms. He now studies and treats patients for the medical effects of herbicides, pesticides, molds and heavy metals.
“This is a bad idea for human health,” he told officials at the meeting. And he maintained that the county’s lab tests are not sufficiently detailed to detect biological toxicity from the spray in water. (The county said it tests to state and federal standards.)
Bernhoft also said that glyphosate is so toxic that the national worker safety program recommends that it not be used in the environment.
“Most telling … is the comment on the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Chemical Safety Cards which says, “Do NOT let this chemical enter the environment” (their emphasis). That’s NIOSH speaking, not the Sierra Club,” Bernhoft wrote in a letter to county Supervisor Steve Bennett last fall.
On Tuesday, several residents also urged the county to begin to use non-toxic means to root out the arundo, which was introduced in California in the 1820s to curb creek erosion and has spread rapidly in riverbeds during the last 50 years.
Under a $5-million state grant, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, in cooperation with the federal Corps of Engineers, has completed its first round of spraying of the giant arundo donax. The eradication was needed to kill the 30-foot-tall reed, which sucks water from native plants, creates a fire hazard and causes erosion, officials said.
The arundo removal is part of a $140-million effort sponsored mostly by the federal government to tear down the Matilija Dam and open up the natural flow of the Ventura River again. That would allow the endangered steelhead trout to migrate upstream and silt and sand to replenish Ventura beaches 16 miles away. But demolition, still not fully funded, could not begin until 2013, officials said.
Built in 1948, the dam never functioned to control flooding or for water storage as intended, filling quickly with silt. Now, only 5 percent of its storage contains water. Millions of cubic feet of sediment fill the rest of the reservoir.
Studies of the arundo eradication have been going on for years. But the actual spraying began last fall. The first round, in which more than 200 acres of reeds have been sprayed in an 1,100-acre project site, is complete. And a second round of spraying, breaking, cutting and shredding of reeds that have grown back has begun. Regrowth areas will be treated over the next five years as needed, officials said. In addition, 25 acres of reeds just north of Baldwin Road will be attacked next year.
So far, 750 tons of the reed have been removed.
But while county officials see the project as a success, they’re also aware that community members have concerns. And they vowed to address them as they arise.
“This is a project where it’s very important to get out accurate information,” said county Supervisor Bennett, who represents the Ojai Valley.
“Given the difficulty and challenges of this project, this is as good of a public meeting as I’ve been in,” Bennett added. “Feel free to ask questions, and when you see things that would be violations, let us know.”
Watershed agency head Pratt’s telephone number is 654-2040; biologist Lindsey’s is 654-2036; and project manager Tom Lagier’s is 672-2106.