By Lisa Loomis

Green Mountain Power customers in The Valley who do not want to have herbicides and pesticides used on their property have a right to ask that alternative methods be used.

The process involves submitting a form that is included with the January bill and/or notifying the company in writing that an alternative to herbicide use is requested. Local activists and others are once again watching the utility carefully after GMP notified customers that it was revisiting its policy of maintaining utility line rights of way manually, versus chemically.

Over two decades ago a local citizens group prevailed on GMP to withdraw its application to the Vermont Pesticide Advisory Council where the utility sought approval for a plan to use herbicides to maintain a 12-mile section of right of way from Waitsfield to Northfield.
Before using pesticides, utilities must file an application with the Pesticide Advisory Council (PAC) and that group makes a recommendation to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Jim Leland, assistant director of agriculture resource management division of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said that the PAC reviews applications and makes recommendations to his office. He said the onus is on the public to inform utilities of where there are sensitive features such as wells and water sources. He said organic farmers must notify utilities as well.

He said that the PAC is made up of members of state agencies, such as the fish and wildlife department, the department of environmental conservation, the agriculture agency, agency of health, transportation, forests and parks, UVM extension representatives, UVM medical school representatives and two members of the public.

The seats for members of the public are currently vacant, he said.

Sylvia Knight, an environmental researcher and advocate from Charlotte, noted that the PAC hears applications once a year in the spring. Those requests, she said, are generally passed on, with minimal or no revisions, to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. She said that only once in the 12 years she has been following this issue, has a permit been denied.

"There is no opportunity for the public to appeal a permit," Knight said.

"This is a system that is not tilted in favor of citizens. It's definitely tilted in favor of the utilities," Knight said.

Leland said that the PAC recommendation and agriculture department decision is an administrative process and, as such, not appealable by the public.

"The right of appeal exists between the agency and the permit applicant, but there is no direct right of appeal for others. I think the resource that's built into the system is that all landowners have the right to notify the utility that they don't want herbicides used on their land," Leland said.
"And although there is no provision for the public to directly appeal that doesn't mean the public can't petition the secretary of agriculture. It doesn't mean there aren't avenues for people to get their needs met," he said.

Green Mountain Power spokesperson Dotty Schnure said last week that the utility was weighing the fiscal and environmental costs of continuing its manual maintenance policy as well as the fiscal and environmental costs of switching to a combination manual/chemical right of way maintenance plan.

In the 20-plus years since GMP stopped using herbicides, the products themselves have changed, according to Leland. He said that the agriculture agency does not have a policy for or against herbicide use, rather that they want to see it managed as well as it can be, with appropriate protections in place for surface and ground water and people.

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.  

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