Thursday, July 16, 2009

Alaska Railroad tries again on herbicide

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The Alaska Railroad is revisiting the longest-running controversy in its 20-plus years as a state-owned carrier with a new application to use weed-killing herbicides on some sections of its track, the Anchorage Daily News reports. This time, railroad officials say they want to use a chemical that targets only plants and doesn't affect animals or fish. They say it will be heavily diluted, and would be used next year only along sections of track between Seward and Indian that are at least 100 feet from water bodies.

Critics are standing ready with counterarguments: They say the railroad's weed-killer of choice is dangerous to people and animals, and that there's hardly anyplace along the railroad's line where water is far away.

A decision on whether the railroad, which argues that weed removal is a safety issue, can go ahead is expected sometime next spring from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency rejected the last request to use herbicides two years ago.

Anticipating another heavy response, Kristin Ryan, director of the agency's environmental health division, has doubled the normal 30-day public comment period to 60 days. It starts today.

Public hearings are scheduled for Aug. 10 in Whittier, Aug. 11 in Seward, and Aug. 12 in Anchorage.

The railroad has been fighting weeds since the state acquired it from the federal government in 1985. With rare and isolated exceptions, it's been required to do so with non-chemical means that have ranged from mowers, steam and hot water to one 1992 phase in which prison inmates were paid $1 an hour to hack the vegetation down. Railroad vice president and chief operating officer Ernie Piper said this week that weeds and brush in and near the tracks have gotten out of hand, especially on the southern 90 miles of line between Indian and Seward.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates the Alaska Railroad, has promised hefty fines and expensive operational restrictions -- cutting the speed at which trains can move or emergency closures of some sections of track -- if the tracks aren't cleaned up. In some places, plants and brush push roots into the gravel bed, or ballast, the track rests on, Piper said. That undermines the stability of the rail line. In other places, weeds and grass grow so thick through ties and rails that safety inspectors might not be able to spot flaws in welds or connections.

"They say, 'we can't see the ties and the fasteners and the plates,'" Piper said. "Particularly in the welded rail we've been putting in, you get expansion in the summer with the heat. They're constantly under stress, and you've got to be able to look for the telltale clues."

Piper and railroad spokesman Tim Thompson said the track maintenance workers have done their best over the years with non-chemical controls.

"In the '90s we tried the steam and the infrared and hot water, burning (vegetation)," Piper said. "None of it worked very well."

To their knowledge, they said, Alaska is the only state where railroads aren't allowed to use herbicides in at least some places.

Last time around, the railroad's application was turned down in part because the chemical wasn't approved for use in water and might hurt fish, Ryan said. This time, the railroad is proposing using a weed-killer called "glyphosate," which Piper said is "the most benign of them all" and targets only plant growth.

"If you don't photosynthesize, you have nothing to fear from it," he said. "If you ingested berries that had been sprayed with glyphosate, you'd just excrete it in your urine. Same thing with other animals and fish and so on."

But Pam Miller, director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said "a wealth of new scientific research" indicates that glyphosate "can harm animals and human health." Miller also argues that the railroad hasn't done enough to try out non-chemical means of weed control, regardless of what the agency's executives say.

"For them to say they've tried these methods is misrepresenting what they've done, which is just giving them sort of a (cursory) try without actually rigorously applying them to see if they can be effective," she said. "The railroad proposing the use of herbicides again really flies in the face of years of citizen opposition.
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