By Lisa Loomis

Twenty-three years after a Waitsfield citizens' group persuaded Green Mountain Power to manually maintain the power lines, the utility is revisiting the issue.

In July 1985, Waitsfield Citizens Against Toxic Sprays (WCATS) objected to a proposal by Green Mountain Power to use herbicides to maintain the rights of way under power lines on a 12-mile stretch from Waitsfield to Northfield.

The citizens' group took its concerns to the state Pesticide Advisory Council presenting testimony about the herbicides leaching into soil and water as well as data challenging the idea that herbicide use was cheaper than manual line maintenance.  

In August GMP withdrew its application to use the combination of chemicals and manual cutting to maintain the 12-mile stretch. WCATS vowed to take the issue statewide, but GMP voluntarily moved to using manual maintenance of the rights of way throughout the state.

But the company is revisiting that policy now. GMP customers received notices in recent bills that the company is revisiting its transmission line maintenance policy.

"We haven't used herbicides for years and years. It was a practice we've chosen, not a policy," said GMP spokesperson Dotty Schnure.

"Over 20 years, herbicides have changed radically. We know that there are concerns with the environment about manual maintenance practices that introduce oils and gas into the environment from chainsaws and four-wheelers," she continued.

"We haven't made the decision yet, but in the interest of transparency we want to let people know we are looking into it," she said.

Schnure said the utility was considering a combination of manual cutting and herbicide application, using an herbicide that is like a diluted version of Roundup. She said the utility is aware that people are concerned about herbicide use and said there is a process whereby people can request notification and can "work out other arrangements."

She also said GMP is only considering using herbicides on transmission lines, as opposed to distribution lines. Transmission lines, she said, tend to go through fields and wooded areas as opposed to along streets.

"What we're doing is studying the environmental and customer service implications of using herbicides versus manual trimming. Manual trimming uses industrial grade equipment including gas chippers, diesel trucks, chain saws and four-wheelers. When we use herbicides on our five-year transmission line maintenance, the amount of bio-growth that returns is less than half of the growth without herbicides, so the next time there's less clearing and fewer chemicals are required," she said.

Schnure said no state entity can tell the utilities whether they can or cannot use herbicides. She said the public service board does have a role along with the Agency of Natural Resources.

"They didn't tell us not to use them. It was our own company decision. There are rules about communication intent to use them and that's why we sent out notices in the January bills," she said.

Jon Groveman, Water Programs director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said that the use of pesticides by utility companies is of concern and said that Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council does oversee the use of herbicides by utilities, VTrans and others in the state.

For those who missed the notice in their January power bill, GMP can be reached at 1-888-835-4672.