The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad has continued on with its plan to spray Oust Extra along the railroad tracks as a way to eliminate specific weeds and track obstructions. Spraying is set to occur within the next three weeks.
WP&YR first announced its intent to spray through a classified ad published in May, stating its plan to spray RoundUp. But after frustrations from the public and the assembly, the company changed the herbicide to Oust Extra, a mixture of sulfometuron methyl and metsulfuron-methyl.
To help mitigate concerns, WP&YR hosted a question and answer session with Deangelo Brothers LLC (DBI), an infrastructure maintenance firm from Pennsylvania who is overseeing the project.
Fewer than 15 people attended the meeting, voicing concerns and asking questions of both White Pass and DBI.
Questions ranged from alternate forms of herbicides to what the Oust will become once it degrades. Representatives from DBI said the herbicide has a half-life, and doesn’t have a molecular change, but couldn’t say exactly what it becomes once that half-life is reached.
Skagway Borough Assembly members Steve Burnham Jr., Jay Burnham and Angela Grieser attended the meeting, and directly afterward discussed concerns during the June 16 assembly meeting.
Burnham Jr. expressed his concerns surrounding the railroad’s desire to spray past the Gold Rush Cemetery and into town.
“The idea of spraying herbicide within the town site, or south of 2A bridge near the Gold Rush Cemetery, I think that is really not what the community wanted when they were sending us letters two years ago about this same issue,” he said. “They weren’t being specific about what chemical was being sprayed necessarily, they were concerned about our water quality, environment and the health of the people.”
Under the Federal Clean Water Act, municipal wastewater treatment plants are required to use primary and secondary treatment to break down organic waste before discharging water to the community. But municipalities like Skagway and Ketchikan, who discharge into marine waters, have been issued a Section 301 Program waiver. Such communities argued that the requirement might be unnecessary because marine treatment plants tend to discharge into deeper waters with large tides and substantial currents, allowing for greater dilution and dispersion.
Skagway Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. voiced concerns about the waiver and the possibility of losing it from spraying herbicide. He said the municipality would be required to report the usage of the herbicide and such a report could make a source water treatment facility necessary.
“We’re most likely going to end up with a source water treatment plant in the next 30 years anyway. But it could significantly increase the need for that,” he said. “It’s hard to know.”
Chris Miller, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Coordinator of the Drinking Water Protection Group, said the spraying of Oust won’t necessarily mean that Skagway will lose its waiver, as it’s not on the list of restricted synthetic organic chemicals (SOCs).
While it isn’t expected to impact the water, if something changes in town, the municipality is required to report it. But what they need to report is somewhat vague, Miller said.
“Somebody could interpret that as being only looking at the regulated contaminants,” he said.
Miller suggested the municipality be proactive and work with White Pass to voluntarily test the water.
“You guys know that you’re spraying, so it’s probably a good idea to test for that,” he said.
Should anything be detected, ADECmust be notified and the SOC will be updated accordingly, but Miller said SOCs are very uncommon in Alaska.
“I don’t think in the 10 years of reviving this information I’ve ever seen an SOC over the maximum contaminant level,” he said. “So bottom line is, no. It isn’t likely that it’s going to impact their water.”
Despite his concern for the waiver, Burnham Jr. did note that White Pass has complied with municipal code, as Oust is not restricted.
“I think it would have been helpful to receive a letter from the railroad letting us know that this process was beginning, rather than finding out from the classified section of the newspaper,” he said.
He said code still restricts drift, runoff or the application of any pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer on any adjacent land or property of another. After attending the meeting with DBI, Burnham said the applicators are aware of the code and don’t anticipate any run off.
To address his concerns, Burnham suggested the assembly ask Skagway Borough Attorney Bob Blasco to send a letter to White Pass, noting their worry about spraying within the town site.
“We have an ordinance. Our intentions are known on that. But I don’t want to get really into that again,” he said. “I think we should let them know what our concerns are. And I think it would come best from the attorney letting them know.”
Assembly members agreed on the letter, but first assemblyman Jay Burnham asked that White Pass be given a chance to speak.
WP&YR Executive Director of Human Resources and Strategic Planning Tyler Rose said they realize herbicide has been a “hot button” issue for the community, and as such, they have tried to accommodate to the best of their ability.
“We haul over 400,000 passengers. The safety of the right of way is of the utmost importance to us,” he said.
Rose said losing the waivers would be a concern for the community, but no one really knows the response.
“It’s very frustrating for us to be kind of treated a little differently at times it seems. We are trying to be as best we can, good neighbors that meet those responsibilities,” he said.
Assemblyman Jay Burnham said he is in favor of White Pass spraying the least amount of herbicide possible, and if that means not spraying south of the 2A bridge, that’s a compromise.
“I’m not in favor of herbicide anywhere. But anywhere that you don’t spray, I’m in favor of that,” he said.
Burnham Jr. said the letter is not changing code at all, but is rather a way to voice the assembly’s concerns.
“If we don’t put our concerns in writing, they might as well disappear,” he said.
In a letter to the municipality, White Pass agreed to only spray north of the 2A bridge and not within the town site.
“Times like these can be challenging, as safety is of paramount importance to our operation,” the letter states. “However, we do not take lightly the concerns of our neighbors and strive to reach reasonable solutions in an attempt to meet their expectations.”