Greener going on the highway

The highway will be a little cleaner and greener this summer.

The Washington State Department of Transportation plans to stop spraying herbicides along State Route 305, and instead use low-growing grass to combat the spread of weeds.

“We’re starting to lean toward this direction of using short grasses and other friendly methods and away from chemicals,” said WSDOT project manager John McNutt.

Work crews will spread a mixture of gravel, fertilizer and grass seed along the highway’s edge as part of a major repaving project slated for August. The low-growing grasses are expected to hamper weed and tall grass growth, which can impair driver visibility and damage pavement.

WSDOT has recently experimented with dozens of chemical-free options near the town of Roy in Pierce County. The low-grass strategy, which seems to have worked the best, is still in the pilot stage with 305 one of the first large-scale test subjects.

“It appears that it’s going to work,” McNutt said. “If there’s problems, we’ll revisit the project and make improvements.”

Island environmentalists have long called for WSDOT to refrain from spraying chemicals along the highway, which runs near numerous wetlands and crosses at least three significant streams.

“This is really good news,” said Natural Landscapes Project co-director Cara Cruickshank. “Those chemicals wash down into streams and into groundwater and cause a lot of trouble.”

Common herbicides, such as Roundup, can harm wildlife and cause a variety of health problems in humans, including nausea, diarrhea, skin irritation and respiratory difficulties, according to the Washington Toxics Coalition.

Denmark recently banned the product, one of the most widely used herbicides, after doses were found in the main source of the nation’s drinking water.

WSDOT formerly used Roundup along 305 but recently downgraded to the less-toxic Rodeo herbicide.

“We had meetings with them and laid out alternatives they could use,” Cruickshank said. “They said at the time they’d reduce but said it was too hard and complicated to stop. Now, if they’re going to totally stop, it shows they care about the stuff we care about here.”

McNutt said islanders’ disdain for herbicide use led to WSDOT’s decision to end herbicide use.

“We made a commitment to Bainbridge to go without chemicals,” he said.

Streams that drain into Murden Cove, Eagle Harbor through the ravine and other areas will run cleaner once WSDOT ceases herbicide use, said island fisheries biologist Wayne Daley.

“This is awesome,” he said. “It’s a great plan and it certainly reduces the potential for herbicides to get into our water, where it not only affects fish, but also amphibians and other critters. Anytime you stop using chemicals it’s a very significant improvement.”

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