Todd Bates, a farmer along the banks of the Río Grande near Rinconada, was driving home on State Road 68 two weeks ago during the unrelenting heat of early summer. His windows were rolled down. Bates says that less than a mile from his house, he drove past a white truck with tanks and nozzles in the bed and that a stream of liquid hit him in the face.
"It wasn't a fine mist. It was like a lot of liquid that sprayed me in the face. I immediately got nauseated," Bates told The Taos News in a Monday (July 3) interview.
Bates found out the truck belonged to the New Mexico Department of Transportation and that the liquid that hit him in the face June 20 was a cocktail of herbicides used to manage noxious and invasive weeds along roadsides.
From June 19-21, trucks with the department's vegetation management program sprayed the guardrails on a stretch of road between Velarde and Rinconada with a total of 2,400 gallons of water mixed with three herbicides, according to Emilee Cantrell, spokesperson for the department.
While those herbicides are among the 51 approved by the state, some residents who live on the river have raised concerns about the spraying's impact on health and sensitive environments of neighboring communities.
"After they gassed the whole corridor, the stench was in the air for the entire day," Scott Downs, an Embudo resident, told The Taos News June 23. "Everyone in the community is a little concerned."
The state considers plants such as camel thorn, Canada thistle and Russian knapweed to be invasive plants and noxious weeds that, according to the Department of Transportation's website, "have been described as a raging biological wildfire out of control and spreading rapidly," bringing "devastation," such as financial losses and ecological damage.
Among the three herbicides used by the department in last month's operation was Roundup Pro Max, a concentrated Monsanto product with glyphosate as the active ingredient. Roundup is one of the most commonly used herbicides and is subject to intense scrutiny from beekeepers and environmentalists for its potentially harmful effects on pollinators, humans and ecosystems. Glyphosate-based herbicides face restrictions in some jurisdictions around the country and, according to some scientific evidence, have the potential to cause cancer in humans.
The other two herbicides used by the department were Telar XP, a DuPont product with chlorsulfuron as the active ingredient, and Weedestroy AM40, a product of Nufarm Americas with dimethylamine as the main ingredient.
According to the department, the three-day operation in June resulted in the spraying of approximately 2,400 gallons of water mixed with about 20 gallons of Weedestroy, 27 gallons of Roundup and less than a gallon of Telar XP.
The herbicides are marketed for controlling weeds in areas such as rights of way, roadsides, range and pasture lands, lawns and non-crop areas.
Cantrell told The Taos News via email June 27 that, in accordance with decades-old federal directives, the department is "committed to providing timely noxious weed management in our right-of-ways." Furthermore, she said the department's website publishes notice of spraying a week beforehand and that the department never sprays in any body of water or where endangered species exist.
But Gaia Khan, an arborist and organic farmer from Dixon, and others are unconvinced of the transparency and safety of department's weed management.
"The way they post [notice] for the public just pisses me off. You have to know specifically where to go on their website and which links to click on," Khan said, adding that signs posted a few miles before an area that's receiving herbicide spraying would do far more to make people aware.
"All around, it's a big screw over. From a gut level, it just makes me so angry and I feel completely betrayed by anyone who is supposed to be working there for the public good. The only entity benefiting is the chemical company who sells the state these chemicals," Khan said. "We're paying them to poison us."
According to Cantrell, department-used herbicides are purchased via a statewide price agreement about twice a year. "On average, the department spends about $2 million a year on the vegetation program, which includes mowing," she said.
Khan and other residents are now circulating a petition on moveon.org that calls for an end to Department of Transportation herbicide spraying in the Rio Grande corridor.
For his part, Bates raised concerns about the amount and intensity of herbicides coming from the truck that day. Drift, or the physical movement of pesticides because of wind, is a common issue in the industry, though mostly on large farms. Herbicide labels all include information about avoiding drift. Bates told The Taos News he was recently visited by a state inspector with the agricultural department who tested his vehicle for herbicide residue.
He also worries about the proximity of the spraying to the Río Grande. The Nufarm herbicide's product information says that it may be toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, even though it was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for aquatic weed control. The label cautions that aerial drift of the herbicide or runoff may also be hazardous to aquatic life.
Bates even challenges the idea of what is considered a weed, noting that some invasive plants have been found to have life-saving uses in medicine.
Bates isn't calling for the whole weed management program to shut down. Instead, he encourages a more proactive approach -- that is, revegetation programs that promote beneficial, native plants along roadsides rather than simply spraying to kill whatever weeds and other plants are growing there. "It's not like the side of the road is a [paved] parking lot; something will grow there. Maybe don't fog the whole neighborhood," he said.
And Bates wonders if the state is so strapped for money for basic government operations, "At what point do you just not spray at all?"