White Pass pushes back spray date to late July

By AIMEE O’CONNOR

Concerns of Skagway residents are being heard loud and clear regarding the decision by White Pass and Yukon Route railway to use herbicides to tackle the vegetation problem on the railroad’s tracks.

In a letter addressed to the Skagway Borough Assembly last week, resident Kim Burnham expressed her concern for “the clean water of Skagway and the related health of residents,” urging the Assembly to consider drafting an ordinance to prevent private companies from using herbicide for commercial spraying.

During a discussion at a June 19 meeting, assembly members agreed that the process of drafting, amending and passing an ordinance does not necessarily comply with the time restriction White Pass is under.

The Alaskan Railroad Corporation’s 2013 vegetation management plan states that “any type of vegetation in the ballast section leads to problems with a stable track structure, which compromises railroad safety.”

Because of this, it is highly important that White Pass promptly remove any vegetation on the main track and siding to ensure the safety of passengers and employees using the railroad.

It has been a long and careful process for White Pass, consulting with other railroads including ARRC, the Canadian Pacific Railroad and OmniTRAX to determine the best way to tidy its tracks this summer.

With recommendations from both OmniTRAX and ARRC, White Pass decided to work with DBI Services Inc. to use herbicide on sections of railroad tracks from outside of the Skagway borough to a point just short of Carcross.

The spraying will be done specifically in the ballast section, extending eight feet from the center of the tracks, as this is the most critical area. It is expected to take just one application this summer to kill the weeds. The inner right of way of the tracks will be kept free of vegetation using brushcutters.

Burnham does not believe the products White Pass plans to use will be successful in killing all of the vegetation, particularly equisetum, commonly called field horsetail.

“The gentleman from DBI Services said [horsetail] was there, but it’s not the dominant weed,” said White Pass president John Finlayson.

Working with DBI Services Inc., White Pass did a mile-by-mile assessment of the tracks together and created what they consider to be the most effective mix of herbicide.

The “mix” in this case will be Monsanto’s “Aquamaster” and “Oust” by Dupont. While the active ingredient in Aquamaster is not successful in removing stubborn horsetail, Oust’s sulfometuron reduced the horsetail population by half during a 2007 study conducted by a University of Nebsraska weed specialist.

Mark Taylor, superintendent of rail operations at White Pass, estimates that about 1 gallon of product will be used per mile of railroad, with herbicide chemicals being diluted to 0.5 to 1 percent.

“This time next year, it is very possible that the products they are using might be illegal,” pointed out Assemblyman Gary Hansen at the meeting.The Environmental Protection Agency has recently agreed to conduct a registration review of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Aquamaster. Activist group Moms Across America suspect the commonly used herbicide Roundup is responsible for a myriad of health concerns including severe allergies, gastrointestinal problems, nutritional deficiencies and mysterious autism-spectrum disorders.

“[White Pass] is not doing anything illegal, but we can ask them to be reasonable,” said Mayor Mark Schaefer.

White Pass has pushed its spraying date back further, now expecting it to happen late July. The company hopes to continue having discussions with regulators as well as any concerned citizens.

UPDATE: On June 30 White Pass announced that it was suspending the spraying program indefinitely. See story in July 11 issue.