My Turn: Keep Alaskan food pesticide free

  • By CINDY WYATT
  • Thursday, November 5, 2015 1:01am
  • Opinion

I have been a rural Alaskan resident for 40 years, trolling, longlining and oyster farming for a living. Here on Prince of Wales, a huge percentage of people benefit from living in a pristine environment.

Alaskan salmon, halibut, crab, shrimp, herring, geoducks and oysters are all high quality foods sold worldwide. Produced in near shore waters, these foods face a new risk: the State of Alaska can undertake large pesticide spraying projects on state uplands and roadsides without permitting or public comment.

This matters because we have reason to believe that pesticides are harmful to human health and the environment. A recent study conducted by Ian Fleming, a Petersburg high school student, showed zero percent survival of coho salmon eggs exposed to glyphosate concentrations that are found in real streams. Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely used pesticides and is currently approved for use along Alaska’s roads. Ian’s work won first prize in his category at the National Junior Science Symposium. Congratulations Ian, for doing work the State of Alaska should have already done.

Glyphosate has also been listed as possibly carcinogenic to humans by an affiliate of the World Health Organization, and a Friends of the Earth Europe study found glyphosate residue in the urine of 44 percent of tested Europeans. We want to trust that our regulating agencies are working hand-in-hand with research scientists to keep us safe. Unfortunately, U.S. federal regulations allow the companies that manufacture and sell pesticides to conduct their own safety studies.

The State of Alaska, specifically the Alaska Department of Transportation, sprays pesticides to kill weeds alongside roads. After years of waging war against salmonberry, alder and elderberry in my garden, I know how hard it is to get rid of these plants. We on POW worry that pesticides often just kill off herbaceous plants competing with shrubs, making it even easier for shrubs to take over roadsides while increasing risk of pesticide runoff. This is the sort of local expertise the new pesticide regulations cut out.

Road maintenance is indeed a problem but pesticides are probably not the answer. Taking a look at how succession works in nature, with herbaceous ground cover inhibiting growth of taller shrubs, could hold a better solution.

In 2013, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation changed the rules for pesticide use by state agencies on state land and roads. Before the change if DOT wanted to spray pesticides they had to apply for a permit from DEC that included identifying affected bodies of water, taking precautions to protect human health and giving people in the area a chance to comment. After the changes, there are no area specific permits required, very weak requirements to inform communities of pesticide use and no need to post warnings at the site of application. When we found out DOT was planning on spraying on POW it took us all by surprise.

Taken by surprise or not, POW residents rallied. After our public outcry DOT put off its plans to spray on POW. In addition, a total of 14 cities and tribes in Southeast Alaska have written letters or resolutions opposing the state’s new regulations, including the Southeast Conference of Mayors and municipalities of Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka. Back in February, I wrote a letter to Gov. Bill Walker voicing my concern about large-scale application of pesticides by state agencies. I received no reply, just this continuation of pro-pesticide policies.

My family trolls for salmon, farms oysters, and harvests everything from beach asparagus to venison here in Sea Otter Sound. It’s not always easy, nor convenient, but it is a way of life that many Alaskans treasure. I don’t want to have to wonder if this food is going to make my family and friends sick. When Gov. Jay Hammond issued a directive back in 1978 banning the use of pesticides by state agencies, it was a smart move. It was a mistake for our state government to quietly overturn that decision. Let’s keep Alaskans and our food pesticide free.

• Cindy Wyatt earned a her bachelor’s of science in biology from the University of Alaska Southeast and currently resides on Marble Island.

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