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Source: Hartford Courant

Bills To Restrict State Highway Herbicides, De-icers, Tree Clearing Win Environment Panel Approval

The legislaature's Enviornment Committee tackled several transportation-related bills this week that could impact the state's highways.


Posted: February 28, 2017
Originally Published: February 27, 2017

The state's use of harsh de-icing chemicals and roadside herbicides and the widespread clearing of trees along highways were among the top transportation-related targets of the legislature's environment committee last week.

Bills to halt or restrict Department of Transportation practices in those areas won approval from the panel, despite objections from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration that the result might be higher costs and safety issues.

Activists have been warning for years that these herbicides and de-icers, as well as extensive tree clearing along roads and highways, are damaging Connecticut's environment.

Members of the environment committee also voted in favor of legislation to ban the use of potentially harmful "coal tar sealants" on state and local highways, and to require public notification when pesticides are sprayed along rail lines' rights-of-ways.

All of those proposals have a long way to go in the General Assembly process, including possible review by other committees and votes in the House and Senate. Even if the bills do win final legislative approval, there is no guarantee Malloy would sign them into law.

Rep. Mike Demicco, co-chairman of the environment panel," said the fact the bills voted out by the committee had broad bipartisan backing should give them a good chance for final passage. "I'd like to think they have significant support," Demicco said.

At a public hearing earlier this month, DOT Commissioner James Redeker offered testimony in opposition to a bill that would require the state to eventually eliminate the use of the de-icer magnesium chloride on any state highway. The bill that won committee approval would require alternatives to be found by July 1, 2022.

Redeker argued halting the use of that harsh chemical "would compromise the efficiency and effectiveness of the Department's current snow and ice program." He said a state-commissioned study found that, "at the present time no products have been identified that can achieve the same level of effectiveness of chloride-based de-icers."

Deputy House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford spoke in support of the bill opposing de-icing. He said, that in addition to environmental issues, magnesium chloride "is also corrosive. … A direct correlation has been found by the American Trucking Association Foundation between increased magnesium chloride use and escalation in truck corrosion and electrical system damage."

Legislation to ban the use of herbicides along state highways also drew objections from Redeker, who told the committee that Connecticut has "over 4,200 lane miles of guide rail and barrier that require vegetation control … to maintain sightlines on curves and intersections" and to reduce fire hazards.

Redeker argued that the DOT uses pesticides responsibly and under a plan approved by the state's environmental agency. He warned state highways are now seeing an increase in invasive plants that need to be controlled through herbicides.

But Louis Burch, a spokesman for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, warned that the herbicides used by the DOT may be effective for a while in controlling pest plants but that "most weeds will develop a chemical resistance over time." He testified that the most common weed-killer on the market today contains glyphosate, a chemical various studies have found contributes to the decline of bees and other pollinators.

The environment panel, on a bipartisan vote of 24-6, approved the anti-pesticide measure.

"We think there is a huge opportunity there," Burch said this week of the committee's action. "We don't have a good handle on how much of this stuff is being used." In his testimony, he said a number of nations have eliminated the use of glyphosate herbicides in favor of "nontoxic alternatives."

In the wake of major storms like Sandy and Irene in 2011 and 2012, the state and major utilities launched efforts to cut back trees along highways, roads and utility lines as safety measures and to prevent storm-related outages. Those efforts have drawn angry protests from residents and activists around the state who insist too many healthy trees have been chopped down.

Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Klee told lawmakers this month that the bill to require his agency to review all DOT plans for tree clearing along major highways would create "an untenable burden" on his small state forestry staff. He said DOT already works with state forestry experts to use "best practices for roadside tree and forestry management."

Environmentalists, like Elizabeth Craig of the Norwalk River Watershed Association, testified that, "Some of the DOT tree removal seems to have been done with little or no consideration for the health and sustainability of roadside wetland areas."

Craig said roadside trees are important for "stormwater control and flood mitigation" and urged lawmakers to approve the bill to place more controls over roadside tree clearing.