Court gives railroad OK for herbicide spraying over Native village objections

By Mary Pemberton
Achorage, Alaska (AP) July 2010

Alaska’s highest court gave a green light to the Alaska Railroad to spray weed killers along a section of track belonging to what is believed to be the last herbicide-free railroad in the nation.

The Supreme Court issued an order denying a review requested by environmental groups and a Native village. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Austin Williams said the court’s decision means that the railroad can begin spraying immediately.

“We are disappointed because certainly spraying by the railroad will have significant public health and environmental impacts and there is no way for the public to be informed and to avoid exposure to the harmful chemicals,” Williams said.

At issue is a plan to spray herbicide along 30 miles of tracks south of Anchorage. The railroad said it had tried other methods to keep weeds down, including torching and steaming the weeds, but weed killers are needed to keep vegetation from forcing apart tracks and concealing problems with fasteners. The railroad is facing fines for allowing too much vegetation to grow.

The Department of Environmental Conservation issued a permit earlier this year allowing the railroad to spray glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and Agridex, which increases the effectiveness of the herbicide. The permit allowed the spraying along the railroad’s right of way between Indian and Seward for a two-year period beginning June 9. The permit does not require that the public be notified when spraying occurs.

The Alaska Community on Toxics, Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Survival, Cook Inletkeeper and the Native Village of Eklutna filed a lawsuit. They contend that the chemicals will foul drinking water and harm salmon streams.

The groups and the Native village managed to get several court stays, including one issued by the Supreme Court during July. The court lifted that stay on July 23. No explanation was provided in the two-page court order.

Kristin Ryan, director of the Division of Environmental Health, said all of the objections to the plan were reviewed during the permitting process.

“The chemicals they are proposing are extremely safe and the method they are using to apply them provides an extra barrier of protection,” she said. “The court has affirmed ... that there will not be adverse affects to human health or the environment.”

Railroad spokeswoman Wendy Lindskoog said spraying would begin as soon as the railroad could get people in place and weather permitted. The plan is to apply the herbicide with a low-pressure nozzle 2 to 3 feet off the ground in non-windy conditions.

The permit contains some restrictions, including no spraying within 200 feet of groundwater or within 100 feet of a stream or pond.