2013-05-30 / Front Page

Public Gives Views on Milfoil Control

Weed Choking Waterways at Les Cheneaux
By Paul Gingras

The benefits and dangers of herbicide to control Eurasian watermilfoil, and who is empowered to use it, dominated discussion at a public forum in Cedarville Thursday, May 23. Citizens discussed ecological, recreational, and economic problems of the milfoil infestation, which is choking the Les Cheneaux Islands waterways. The meeting was called to include the public in drafting the local Eurasian water milfoil management plan.

Most who spoke at the meeting opposed a plan to use aquatic herbicides. Some spoke in favor of it.

The meeting was hosted by the Clark Township Board of Trustees at the community center for the Les Cheneaux Watershed Council to explain past efforts and future plans to combat the invasive weed. Representatives of Michigan’s environmental quality and natural resources departments addressed public concerns, and Jason Broekstra of PLM Lake and Land Management Corporation spoke on the issue. PLM is the applicant for a controversial permit to apply aquatic herbicides at Les Cheneaux.

Much of the discussion concerned the company’s application to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). PLM is acting on behalf of Les Cheneaux Pure Water, a local not-for-profit organization affiliated with the Watershed Council.

Among the most highly debated questions was whether the public or the state decides if herbicides will be used.

The permit is under review by Eric Bacon of the DEQ, who said if his agency grants the permit, Les Cheneaux Pure Water could contract with the company to apply the chemicals, but funding would be needed.

Bob Smith, president of the Watershed Council, noted that the permit does not guarantee that herbicides will be used. He cited several other ways to control milfoil, and added that he expects the public to formally weigh in on the issue.

“It is going to be a township-wide vote,” he told The St. Ignace News.

Mr. Bacon emphasized that the permit has not been approved.

“Right now, we have an incomplete application,” he said. “We have a number of issues that need to be resolved. Your input is going to play a big part in what direction we go… You have a say in this project, if you are going to focus solely on chemicals or if you’re going to focus on alternatives.”

The application requires more information from PLM, more on sites where herbicides may be applied, more on health issues, and more about threatened and endangered species in the area.

“There could be an obstacle,” Mr. Bacon explained. “But I haven’t thoroughly reviewed the application yet because it isn’t complete.”

Key to the review is whether the permit application is legal.

“There is a question as to whether the application is even valid because of the relationship of Pure Water as a bottomland owner or a representative of a local unit of government or state government,” Mr. Bacon said.

James White, a chemist citing 30 years of experience in the industry, asked how members of the public could influence Mr. Bacon’s decision.

Mr. Bacon encouraged public comments via e-mail. The address is bacone@michigan.gov.

The original version of the permit, dated January 8, 2013, proposes treatment of 14,130 acres of Lake Huron in the Les Cheneaux Islands area. Following public feedback, it was amended and reduced to 500 acres. The amended version is dated March 11, 2013.

Mr. Broekstra of PLM said the intention was not to treat the entire area, but to set perimeters within which to operate.

People approaching the issue from diverse perspectives agreed that Eurasian watermilfoil constitutes a serious problem that must be addressed by chemical control or other methods.

In his opening statement to the public, Township Supervisor Gary Reid said the plant has infested approximately 1,500 acres of waterways at Les Cheneaux, which is critical to the health and well-being of the community. Eurasian water milfoil threatens the waterfront and hundreds of jobs related to the maritime tourism and boating industries, he said.

Mr. Smith detailed his organization’s main activities dating to 2001, and said the group has endeavored to manage the milfoil problem for years. Weevils, fungus, and mechanical harvesting are methods proposed to battle the plant, and some have been used.

The Watershed Council hopes to augment non-chemical methods, including limited dredging and scraping of the lake bottom, which have been shown to seriously damage Eurasian watermilfoil. Mr. Smith noted that the Watershed Council is considering multiple cuttings with the mechanical harvester, which may significantly reduce the infestation.

All chemical and non-chemical methods have limiting factors. Weevils can’t be used in boating channels, for example, and scraping the lake bottom would be restricted to navigation channels because too much scraping of the lake bottom could lead to ecological damage, so “it is obviously going to be a combination of methods,” Mr. Smith said.

Township trustee Jason Sherlund asked whether augmenting the mechanical harvesting program by adding several machines would control the invasive plant.

Increased cuttings would help, Mr. Smith explained. But areas of the waterways would have to be cut in sections, possibly over a four-year period because a massive cut could be damaging. If herbicides were employed, they would also have to be applied in sections over time, for the same reason, he added.

Mr. Smith explained that part of the Watershed Council’s research into controlling Eurasian watermilfoil led to the formation of Pure Water, a separate, small group tasked with herbicide research and application.

Area resident Bob Alexander questioned whether non-chemical proposals could curb the growth of the plant fast enough to help area businesses.

He cited economic hardship connected with dropping property values, decreasing tourism, declining population, and fishery problems dating back 15 years.

“Our summer business, which we thought was going to be growing into May or June, now starts on the 4th of July and ends at Boat Show,” he said. “Now, we have milfoil. It’s not helping.”

Using herbicide “is the one idea that seems to have time constant within a horizon where we could see an economic rebound…Short of herbicides, we don’t have another economic idea within that same time horizon,” he said.

Others at the meeting, some speaking as members of the Islands Wildlife organization, said herbicides constitute a threat to the health of humans, animals, and native plant life. Speakers also noted that using herbicides could pose a threat to the economy by shifting public perception away from the image of Les Cheneaux as an exceptionally pristine area.

Water intake pipes near potential testing sites, the possibility of persistent chemical residue, de-oxygenated water, and other problems were cited by members of Islands Wildlife and area business people as specific concerns.

Ken Izzard of Islands Wildlife called on Dr. White to address the issue from an experienced chemist’s perspective.

Dr. White said he is concerned with chemical treatments in the “triclopyr” family, including Renovate OTF, one of the chemicals proposed to battle the Eurasian watermilfoil at Les Cheneaux, he said.

According to Dr. White, the chemical could kill both Eurasian water milfoil as well as native species of plants and pose a threat to fish and human health. Further, he is concerned that a byproduct called trichloro-pyridinol (TCP) could persist for years in sediment.

Dr. White said he found no studies regarding the long-term effects of TCP. Thus, he considers Renovate OTF an unknown factor too dangerous to unleash in area waters.

Citing an herbicide fact sheet published by the Oregon-based Journal of Pesticide Reform, he added triclopyr has been liked to cancer in rats and mice.

An EPA report cited by Dr. White, “classifies triclopyr as a Group D carcinogen. That basically means we don’t know enough about it to classify it…Why would we want to put that in our waters?”

Dr. White said there are at least 130 potable water intakes in Cedar- ville/Hessel area that could be affected by chemical treatment. Chemicals such as Renovate OTF require setbacks approximately 2,000 feet from water intake lines when applied at levels proposed to control milfoil, he noted.

“The use of this broad spectrum herbicide would very likely create dead areas in our region in which neither fish nor vegetation would be able to survive,” Dr. White said.

He acknowledged that chemicals proposed by PLM are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but he called on citizens to question exactly what they are approved to do.

Chemicals proposed are common in inland lakes but not in open water systems like Lake Huron, he noted.

Citing decades of experience, Dr. White said public perception of the chemical industry is generally poor, begging the question of how visitors would react to waterfront closure signs related to use of chemicals, and warnings against using drinking water intakes during herbicide applications.

“As a concerned resident and a chemist, I really want to keep Les Cheneaux waters pure. And I want to keep them pure by not using chemicals,” he said.

Businessman Mark Engle said he is concerned about public perception of the area that could be impacted by using herbicides. He also cited concerns for the health of fish, plants, and other wildlife, and that he is concerned that the EPA has too few follow up studies related to chemical applications.

He supported the non-chemical methods proposed by the Watershed Council, but feels time and money should be directed to helping efforts to restore low lake levels. He also pointed out that he and others in the area know very little about Les Cheneaux’s native plants in general.

Mr. Engle called on the public to sign a petition in opposition to the use of aquatic herbicides in area waters.

Speaking as a concerned, local property owner, Chase Horsburgh said the size of the area to be addressed, as listed on the permit application, drove his initial concern about chemical treatments, leading him to contact the Foster Swift Collins and Smith law firm, which called into question the legality of the permit applied for by Les Cheneaux Pure Water.

Mr. Horsburgh’s research also led him to R. Douglas Workman at Advanced Ecological Management (AEM), a Reed City-based environmental consulting firm.

“I asked him what it would take to really understand the native species here and do an aquatic plant inventory of the entire Les Cheneuax Islands,” Mr. Horsbugh said.

Mr. Workman’s estimate came in at $45,000 to $65,000 for the plant survey.

“I think that number speaks extremely loudly to what we don’t know,” Mr. Horsburgh said.

He also cited concern with the lack of a management plan attached to the permit application, and discussed efforts at Lake George in New York, Eurasian watermilfoil was brought under control without chemicals, he said.

Mr. Broekstra spoke out to clarify his company’s perspective on the efforts to use herbicides as a tool to control milfoil. One goal was to get the permit into the state’s hands in time for the summer season. Then research on matters such as plant communities and drinking water intakes could commence, he explained.

“It’s very common for us to ask for a broad area of management,” he added. “That does not mean we’re going to treat all those areas. It means we have the freedom to move within the permit and address the areas that are required.”

It was too early for PLM to know precisely which areas would be treated when the permit application was sent last winter, and he fully expected public meetings to occur afterward, he added.

Part of the concern is whether herbicides used to treat inland lakes or rivers is appropriate on Lake Huron. Mr. Broekstra noted that labels on the herbicides regarded treatment at “true rivers,” not areas like the Les Cheneaux Islands in Lake Huron. Sufficient contact time on plants and moving water are factors to be considered, he said.

Owing, in part to the presence of potable water intakes, “we don’t even know if these particular herbicides we’re referring to can be used…” he explained. “We know [water intakes] are out there. We don’t know where they’re located. We knew we had to address that concern.”

If there were too many intakes (notably drinking water intakes as opposed to intakes for irrigation) or they were too close to herbicide treatment areas, they would not be used. If they could be applied, a public awareness campaign would be developed regarding when and where herbicides would be applied, he added.

Mr. Broekstra cited years of experience at inland lakes throughout Michigan. Using herbicides would require notifying residents near treatments areas not to use their water sources during applications. Treatment could commence after seasonal residents had left for the year. About two days after applications, there would be better chemical detection rates than potable water intake regulations call for, he said.

Mr. Broekstra said he considers lake management plans valuable, but a lake management plan was not required for the application to apply herbicides at Les Cheneaux, he added.

The application was filed at a point too early in the process to have developed a formal lake management plan, he said, adding that he provided a draft plan to township board members.

This statement was strongly contested by Clark Township Treasurer Katie Carpenter, who said no plan had been submitted to the township board.

She added that the permit process was proceeding steadily until the township board wrote to the state and called for a halt in the process, pending a study of potable water intakes and a public meeting on the subject.

Mr. Broekstra stressed that the herbicides proposed are selective, like herbicides that kill dandelions in lawns but leave grass healthy. At proper levels, it would leave other plant species intact, he said.

He emphasized that plant inventories are important and that area residents should find out what the aquatic plant species are.

“You should figure that out now, because then you’re going to monitor it, and you’re going to see it decline,” he contended.

The density of the Eurasian watermilfoil infestation is already choking out native plants and could lead to conditions that threaten fish, he added

Mr. Broekstra emphasized his faith in EPA regulations.

Dr. White contested the safety of relying on EPA regulations, saying that the half-life of triclopyr is 28 days and that no one knows the how long the effects of TCP in the sediment will last. He cited concern that side effects associated with herbicide use included massive amounts of decomposing plant life that could lower the oxygen levels enough to threaten fish survival, he said.

Dr. White pointed out that labels on Rennovate OTF packages state clearly that they can be used to control many species of plants, including native plants like water lilies.

The key is the dosage, Mr. Broekstra said. At Higgins Lake, where Eurasian watermilfoil infested about half of the 20,000-acre water body, herbicides brought Eurasian watermilfoil under control and allowed native plants to recover and flourish, he added.

A member of the public asked if PLM would be part of developing the lake management plan and profit from the sale of herbicides.

Mr. Smith said that would depend on the type of lake plan developed. He confirmed that anyone hired to apply herbicides would profit. This led to a public call for the entities that develop the lake management plan to be independent of the company that stands to profit from the project.

Some members of the public asked for the cost of mechanical dredging or hand removing milfoil.

Some dredging processes are available, such as suction dredging, but heavy labor would be involved, Mr. Smith said. In response to further questions, he also explained that weevil projects could have been more effective if permits had been received by the state earlier. He added that he is concerned about the sheer quantity of milfoil and its potential to affect oxygen levels needed by fish. Milfoil produces oxygen during the day and uses it at night. Too much of any plant could pose a problem for oxygen levels, he said.

Milfoil can be transplanted easily by boats, which cut through the weeds, retain fragments, and deposit them elsewhere, furthering infestations. Equipment to remove milfoil collected on boats is part of a plan to augment public infrastructure at the Cedarville waterfront, Mr. Smith said.

He explained that this would not eliminate the problem but could help raise public awareness about Eurasian watermilfoil.

The state of Minnesota imposes fines on boaters discovered with weeds on their watercraft when entering or leaving access sites, he added.

Various ways to gauge community opinion via surveys were brought up several times throughout the meeting.

Area resident Mike Patrick noted that a survey passed out at the meeting and available online may not reach seasonal residents. The survey includes the question, “Do you agree with the use of herbicides to manage Eurasian watermilfoil in small (3-5 sites approx. 5-10 acres) test sites in the fall of 2013 or spring of 2014?”

Some called for a different survey. Others called for a survey on the matter to be included with summer tax bills.

Mr. Reid agreed with the idea to include a survey with summer tax bills and ensured the public that it would be on the next township board meeting agenda.

Township Clerk Susan Rutledge offered a summary of correspondence regarding Eurasian watermilfoil management that included telephone calls, written communications, and personal visits by area residents to the township office. All correspondence cited opposition to the use of chemicals, she said.

Even with detailed questioning from many angles fielded by Mr. Smith, applause erupted when a member of the audience cited the diligence and persistence of the Watershed Council and called for its continued effort.

“We’re all in this together, folks,” Mr. Smith replied. “We’re going to get it fixed.”

The Les Cheneaux Watershed Council survey regarding Eurasian watermilfoil and efforts to control it is available online at www.lescheneauxwatershed.org.

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