Farming community puts pressure on state herbicide program


More than 50 residents from Dixon, Embudo and surrounding areas gathered Thursday (Sept. 7) to tell representatives of the New Mexico Department of Transportation they don't want herbicides sprayed near their families, farms and roads.

The community forum grew out of an incident in June in which several people say they were sprayed with a cocktail of herbicides by a state Department of Transportation truck doing routine noxious weed management. In the months since, residents of the northern portion of Río Arriba County have organized themselves and tapped into progressive networks to ensure their roadways aren't treated with potentially toxic herbicides.

The residents argue herbicides, although approved by the federal government, can cause illness, especially in vulnerable, chemical-sensitive people, elderly folks and children. Furthermore, they say their orchards and aviaries are at risk, meaning so are their economic livelihoods.

"We don't want to be sprayed, period. This is what we're trying to make [the Department of Transportation] understand - that we just don't want it," said Beth Guggenheim, a resident of Cañoncito.

A tension pervaded the forum, with residents arguing the herbicides used to treat noxious weeds (plants potentially harmful to humans and livestock) are far more dangerous than the actual weeds. Yet department officials were resolute in defending the noxious weed management program and the use of herbicides as a cost-effective way to meet its mission.

Indeed, Anthony Lujan, deputy secretary of highway operations, at times ignored residents' inquiries about the ecological and health impacts of herbicides, especially when those chemicals are used collectively. He said he would answer "real questions" from the audience.

Residents at the event implored the department to commit to not spraying the Río Grande corridor on State Road 68, the primary road in question. But they also offered suggestions to help the department avoid the use of herbicides, including opting their property out of spraying or themselves cleaning especially weedy spots along the road.

Though Lujan and other officials would not "say the magic words: no more spraying," as area farmer Lee Mesibov said, the department did commit to taking some immediate actions - such as improving traffic control during spraying operations and "doing a better job of notifying" the public during those days when herbicides will be sprayed.

Currently, the department publishes online a difficult-to-read list of stretches of state roads it'll be spraying, rather than putting up signs during the actual operations.

Lujan also committed to continuing a long-term discussion with residents. He and Paul Brasher, District 5 engineer, promised officials would walk the corridor on State Road 68 in order to talk about specific areas the department feels it needs to spray and also listen to residents' alternative suggestions. He said that following the tour, a similar community forum would occur.

"Come look at where we're spraying. … We can show you what we're doing. That's a sincere offer," Lujan said.

Sheena Cameron, one of the organizers of the Río Arriba County residents, called the meeting and promise of a walk-through "a good first step."

"I think good will come out of it," she said.

Lorenz Osen, another organizer and resident, told The Taos News, "There's optimism that spraying can and will be reduced. But we're hoping concerned citizens statewide rise to the occasion" of challenging the use of herbicides and pushing for alternatives in their own communities.

He said the residents are planning to pursue a "legislative option" at the New Mexico Roundhouse, in addition to continuing their efforts with the department.

Lujan and other Department of Transportation officials could not be reached as of press time for follow-up questions about next steps.

The spraying the department conducted along State Road 68 in June occurs once yearly, department spokesperson Emilee Cantrell has told The Taos News.

From June 19-21, trucks with the department's noxious weed management program sprayed the guardrails on a stretch of road between Velarde and Rinconada. In total, the department employee sprayed 2,400 gallons of water mixed with three herbicides - Telar XP, a DuPont product with chlorsulfuron as the active ingredient; Weedestroy AM40, a product of Nufarm Americas with dimethylamine as the main ingredient; and Roundup Pro Max, a concentrated Monsanto product with glyphosate as the active ingredient.

Roundup is one of the most commonly used herbicides and is among the herbicides that are 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 cities and towns around the country and, according to some scientific evidence, have the potential to cause cancer in humans.

Lujan said that an investigation by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, which is housed under New Mexico State University and is responsible for regulating pesticide use in the state, revealed the employee who was spraying during the June operation in Río Arriba County did not have a wind meter, an essential piece of equipment that's required for monitoring wind speed. Herbicides can "drift," or move beyond the target area or plant, if wind speeds are too high.

"We're supposed to make sure it's done right," one department employee said of the oversight revealed in the investigation.