Judge extends order barring railroad herbicide

Posted: Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A judge on Monday extended an order preventing the Alaska Railroad from spraying weed killers on a section of track until Alaska's high court can review the state-issued permit.

State regulators gave the railroad permission to spray herbicide for 30 miles along a 90-mile stretch of track from Indian to Seward south of Anchorage.

Environmental groups are fighting the permit, saying regulators failed to consider the herbicide's harmful effects on drinking water and salmon streams. The permit would have allowed spraying to begin last week, but the groups were granted a temporary stay.

On Monday, Superior Judge William Morse extended the stay until Friday to allow the state Supreme Court to review the issue.

"The railroad is disappointed we can't take any action until Friday," said Phyllis Johnson, representing the railroad.

Johnson said the railroad has been seeking permission since 2006 to use herbicides to combat weeds along its tracks. She said weeds can force apart tracks, cause railroad ties to decay more quickly and conceal problems with fasteners during safety inspections.

Johnson believes the Alaska Railroad is the only railroad in the country not permitted to use herbicides. She said it has met the permit requirements and has equipment in place to begin spraying immediately.

The Alaska Railroad maintains it has exhausted other ways to fight weeds, and is facing fines from federal regulators who say too much vegetation along the tracks could lead to train delays and track closures.

Environmental groups, along with the Native village of Eklutna, say state regulators have failed to weigh the herbicide's harmful effects. They also note that the permit does not require that the public be notified when and where spraying will occur.

State regulators say if the herbicide is used properly, there is no harm to humans or the environment. The railroad is proposing using the same active ingredient that is used in the common garden herbicide Roundup, as well as a wetting agent. The herbicide would be applied with a low-pressure nozzle 2 to 3 feet off the ground.

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

"Once the spraying occurs, there is no way to remove those chemicals," lawyer Austin Williams told the judge Monday.

Williams, with environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, said if the permit is allowed to stand, the railroad likely will move to use herbicides along the rest of its 500-mile line from Seward to Fairbanks to North Pole.

"The people of Eklutna depend on the harvest of berries, medicinal plants, fish and wildlife for our spiritual, cultural and physical sustenance. Stopping the use of herbicides along the Alaska Railroad is essential to keep our community healthy," said Marc Lamoreaux, the village's land and environment director.

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