For the past two years, a group of Gorham residents has been trying to get the Maine Department of Transportation to stop spraying herbicides along the Mountain Division Rail Trail, which passes through Gorham.
The group was co-founded by Gorham resident Den Morton, who says, “We worked with Toxics Action Center to help us organize. We did three petition drives and collected close to 3,000 signatures from people who wanted the spraying to stop. We went to Augusta and met with Robert Moosman, a chemical engineer, Nate Moulton, state engineer for rail service and David Bernhardt, commissioner of the DOT. We have met with state reps all along the Mountain Division Rail, and no one will take on the DOT.”
The Maine DOT owns 550 miles of track in Maine; 320 miles are active, 230 are not. The Mountain Division is a 52-mile long line that runs from Windham to the New Hampshire border in Fryeburg. It is inactive, meaning trains no longer run on it, but for the past several years trails alongside the track have been upgraded and maintained for recreational use.
You can get more information about the history of the line and efforts to preserve and eventually connect it to the trail into Portland on the Maine Mountain Division Trail website.
Every year the DOT sprays the herbicides Razor and Oust Extra to control weeds along the section of trail that winds through Gorham. A third chemical known as Arsenal is used in other areas of the state, but not Gorham.
The group is concerned that the herbicides present a hazard to people’s health and the environment. “Two of the chemicals they use are awful and one has been connected to cancer,” says Morton, himself a cancer survivor.
Last summer the DOT responded to the concerns by agreeing to a one-year no-spray agreement. The group’s end of the bargain was that it had to keep the 5-mile stretch of tracks weed-free. In a letter to the DOT Morton wrote, ” It is our plan to have hundreds of people on the trail during the months of August and September clearing the weeds.”
Keeping the tracks weed-free turned out to be even more difficult than anticipated and much to the dismay and frustration of group members, the DOT resumed spraying the line a few weeks ago.
Den Morton immediately sent out this email: “The MDOT must have money to burn, they are spending it to spray the same old toxic chemicals along our Mountain Division Trail and Mountain Division Rail. How are the state roads near your home? Maybe you don’t mind the chemical being sprayed on an abandoned rail right of way, how about thousands of dollars wasted, your tax dollars dumped on the old rail line. Check it out, go to the MDOT web site and see what they spend on the MDT and a train hasn’t run on it in 24 years. Send Nathan Moulton and the governor an email and thank them for the great job of maintaining the rail.”
Why does the DOT spray herbicides on tracks that are no longer in service? I went to Augusta and met with DOT officials to ask that and a few more questions directly.
Why does the DOT spray herbicides on railroad tracks no longer in service?
Nathan Moulton, DOT’s rail program director, says there are two main reasons why weeds and other vegetation need to be controlled.
1. To keep the tracks open to high rail equipment.
“Even with these inactive corridors we’re out there inspecting and keeping the culverts open so we don’t get large washouts or failures. On a lot of these rail corridors your only way in is on rail-mounted equipment, what we refer to as high rail equipment. We need to do the entire line to keep it open so we can properly maintain it. Our employees are out there and they’re high railing in the truck or whatever piece of equipment they’re using and they need to be able to see the track.”
2. To preserve the rail line for future use.
“All the rail corridors that the state owns and DOT manages were bought under a rail preservation statute — they were purchased for future or present rail use. The chances are quite good that someday this rail corridor will be used. I always tell people on that section especially, it’s not if, it’s when. It’s a matter of time. If we didn’t control the weeds, it wouldn’t be very long before these tracks would be impassable. What we’re doing now reduces our cost when it comes time to rebuild.”
How much is spent spraying on the Mountain Division Line?
Morton says, “We have found paperwork that the MDOT presented to the Federal government stating that they spend $82,000 a year maintaining the abandoned rail line.”
Moulton says when the DOT bought the Mountain Division Line it was so overgrown a contractor was hired to excavate and open it up at a cost of $4000 a mile. He says the $82,000 figure comes from a grant application prepared in 2009 that included that additional cost. Currently, he says it costs $63, 876 to maintain 320 miles of DOT lines, both active and inactive. The Aroostook Line is excluded because the operator of the line picks up maintenance costs. “Maintenance on the lines includes a lot of work,” he says, “including ditching, fixing culverts and washouts as well as clearing and spraying. On average, it costs about $200 to $250 per mile depending on how big a pattern is being sprayed. Also, not every mile of track is sprayed each year.”
At $250 per mile, the cost to maintain the entire 52-mile long Mountain Division Line would be $13,000.
Why doesn’t the DOT use another method to control the weeds?
DOT’s statewide vegetation manager Bob Moosman says he was a member of a statewide stakeholder’s group that spent two years evaluating alternatives tried around the country and Europe. They included using steam, infrared heat, tilling the soil, and mowing.
“All of the options out there other than herbicides simply don’t work. They are not a long-term solution in most cases. You have to be on the track every couple of weeks and costs range from $2500 upwards of $10,000 to $12,000 per acre on the tracks. It gets very expensive to utilize alternatives.”
What is the DOT’s response to concerns about possible health effects?
The number one concern for the Gorham group is that the chemicals being sprayed along the rail trails put the public and the environment at risk. For example, group member Kristin Uhlig shared an email from a resident of Fryeburg, where spraying also took place a few weeks ago. The resident complained of a “burning sensation in my mouth almost immediately and later a burning sensation on my skin.”
Bob Moosman defends DOT’s policy, saying, “We’ve made conscious choices to use products that are much less persistent in the environment. We’re using three different materials, all at lower than label recommendations and getting the results we expect. I understand the group’s concerns. But as somebody who has worked with these materials for over 30 years and looks at it in a scientific way, I honestly can’t find the harm in the products that we’re using, at the rates that we’re using them, applied once a year in some cases and every other year in other cases. I don’t see the issue.”
No matter what the DOT representatives say, it remains a huge issue for Den Morton and the other members of the group. However, he says leading the effort takes a lot of energy and talent. Because he has become heavily involved in developing a Cancer Support Ministry, he is stepping aside to let someone else oversee the fight against spraying. The group decided to change its name from Friends of Rails to Trails to Citizens for a Green Gorham and become more active in a number of environmental issues related to Gorham, including spraying the rail trails. First item on the agenda is a public showing of Paul Tukey’s documentary “A Chemical Reaction.”
“A Chemical Reaction”
Monday, July 9, 2012
USM Gorham Campus
John Mitchell Center, Room 217
You can find more information about the showing on the Citizens for a Green Gorham’s new website.
Where do you stand on this issue? Please feel free to comment or ask questions. I’ll do my best to find the answers or connect you with the person best suited to respond.