With summer monsoon rains comes the greening up of buffelgrass, a non-native invasive bunchgrass that chokes out native plants and creates a serious fire hazard. And with buffelgrass growth comes aerial spraying of controversial pesticides that have sickened local residents.
Buffelgrass is tenacious, with deep roots. Removal by hand is labor-intensive, and only glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, seems to kill it. The pesticide must, however, be applied during the wet greening-up period. In addition to backpack sprayers and trucks, cropduster airplanes and helicopters are being used to spread the poison locally.
Buffelgrass was widely planted as cattle forage and erosion control before being banned as a “noxious pest” in Arizona. New and hardier varieties are still being developed and marketed in Texas and Sonora, and climate change is increasing its range.
The World Health Organization labeled glyphosate a “probable” cause of cancer last year. There is a non-Hodgkins lymphoma blood cancer cluster among regular users of glyphosate in the agricultural industry. The European Union has been unable to agree on relicensing glyphosate and the product could end up off the shelves this summer if a compromise is not reached by the end of June. It has already been banned or restricted in a number of countries and U.S. localities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing its approval of glyphosate amid reports, after Freedom of Information Act disclosures to The Intercept, that 27 of the 32 studies relied on to declare glyphosate safe were funded by the pesticide industry, including manufacturers Monsanto and Sygenta. Three of the five independent studies found adverse effects on reproductive systems.
A growing number of independent studies not looked at by the EPA are confirming the dangers of glyphosate exposure. Recent research also shows that “inert ingredients” used with glyphosate, like POEA, damage the human endocrine system. A May, 2016, report from Peru found 92 children and three teachers sickened with extreme vomiting in a school near a field being sprayed with glyphosate.
Similar symptoms have been reported by residents of the Avra Valley near aerial spraying by Saguaro National Park in the Panther Peak area, and near Tucson Water’s valley holdings. Glyphosate runoff after a storm is also suspected as the killer of cattle forage on a nearby rancher’s property.
Glyphosate is a major cause of the decline in the national monarch butterfly population.
The pesticide kills milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s food source. Glyphosate is also a suspect in the Colony Collapse Disorder that has decimated pollinator bee populations.
RESPONSES TO PROTESTS
This will be third year Saguaro National Park plans aerial spraying by helicopter, despite problems with controlling spray drift. A report from Park Restoration Ecologist Dana Backer to the Southwest Vegetative Management Association after the park’s initial 2014 spraying noted that controls to limit spray drift away from the target areas did not always work.
Backer’s PowerPoint presentation stated: “Equipment cannot be calibration (sic) on the fly (8 ft. boom), system needs to purge at end of load and rinsate loads,” and they had to “accept overlap of spray swaths.” The results were heavier-than-planned concentrations of glyphosate which led to making neighbors sick.
At a peaceful protest by Avra Valley residents at the Park’s Red Hills Visitor Center last summer park staff denied that Backer had said those things. Backer’s presentation, however, is still available on the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordinating Committee’s website, http://www.buffelgrass.org/sites/default/files/Buffelgrass%20Control%20Takes%20to%20the%20Air_v3.pdf. See page 38, “Lessons Learned.”
The Park has not announced any specific spray dates yet, saying they are “contingent upon having sufficient rains.” Park Ecologist Backer told us dates will be posted on the Park’s website, https://www.nps.gov/sagu/index.htm when they have been determined.
Saguaro Park is among the recipients of a recent Department of the Interior Resilient Landscapes Program grant to combat buffelgrass. The park will use some of those funds for aerial pesticide spraying, according to Backer. Aerial spraying, originally scheduled to conclude this summer, will likely continue into the future.
Tucson Water sprays the buffelgrass it planted in the Avra Valley regularly with cropduster-type airplanes. They have sprayed up to 200 feet from the home of area residents who, with their dog, became sick after the spraying. Concerns from the Avra Valley Coalition and others prompted inquiries from Tucson Water’s Citizens Water Advisory Committee .
That has resulted in a notification system that area residents say is inadequate, but is a start. Spray areas will be flagged and there will be written notices of the general time frame for spraying, with a contact phone number. The specific day of spraying, however, will not be announced. Residents are asking for automated calling on the day of spraying so they can leave or hunker down.
Coronado National Forest media contact Heidi Schewel told us that the Forest has not scheduled any aerial applications and will continue with ground-only spraying. They will also continue to post notices at visitor centers, on information kiosks, and at trailheads so that visitors and hikers are aware of the use of herbicides.