Glyphosate debate comes to Nambucca over Council's roadside weed spraying activities

The use of glyphosate for weed maintenance has been a hot topic globally ever since a US court ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a terminally-ill groundskeeper after the jury determined that daily use of Roundup had caused his cancer.

The debate came to the Nambucca Valley at the last council meeting in Argents Hill when local resident Paula Flack raised the issue during the public forum.

“I’ve lived on North Arm Rd for 35 years and I’ve never seen this amount of glyphosate being used before,” Ms Flack said.

“Council has a duty of care not just to ratepayers, but also to the environment.”

Australia's Cancer Council has urged Roundup users to be careful, but federal regulators say there is nothing to worry about. Glyphosate is the active chemical in RoundUp and around 500 other products sold in Australia.

Australia's Cancer Council has urged Roundup users to be careful, but federal regulators say there is nothing to worry about. Glyphosate is the active chemical in RoundUp and around 500 other products sold in Australia.

Staff routinely spray glyphosate as par for course during its roadside weed maintenance program.

In response to Ms Flack’s assertion that the level of spraying has increased, Council said it “has not altered its roadside weed spraying program in recent years”.

“Council has responsibilities, as does every land holder or manager under the Biosecurity Act, towards preventing, eliminating or minimising biosecurity risk (invasive weed species) as far as is reasonably practicable,” staff said.

Driver visibility was another reason stated for the necessity of regular roadside weed maintenance: “Maintaining good sight distance on our road networks, especially when you have regular school bus and logging truck interactions in our rural areas, is a priority for the safety of road users.”

Staff also said that Council tries to minimise the use of spraying in “public areas” as much as is feasible.  

But Ms Flack questioned this, pointing out in her address that there had been several “blanket spraying events” which had occurred during the middle of the night, and without the proper notification of nearby residents before the incidents.

People taking their early morning walks – and there are quite a few of them out here – were completely unaware that they were walking into a plume of chemicals.

Paula Flack

Ms Flack said after a “blanket spraying event” a couple of years back she had met council staff to get a ‘please explain’ and had been assured that it had “been a mistake and would never happen again”.

Council has refuted this.

“Council staff are not aware of an apology being provided to North Arm residents over spraying roadside weeds on North Arm, being lantana, privets, camphor laurel and various grass weed species, but there were some complaints over the use of herbicide in the North Arm area,” staff said.

They also said they notify residents via a “mandatory pesticide notofication in the local paper once per quarter” as per their Pesticide Notification Plan.

Ms Flack suggested that slope or ‘reach’ mowing, while more labor-intensive, would be a more environmentally sound process for weed maintenance and prevent chemicals leaching into natural water sources. She said over time “the task would become easier and quicker as vegetation adapted to being mowed”.

Cr Ainsworth responded that there are many hilly places in the Valley in which mowing simply isn’t an option.

“So I think we need to be a little bit cautious in saying a definite ‘no’ to glyphosate,” he said.

Council staff also said that due to “very limited budgets and resources” reach mowing on all public-owned Nambucca Shire land is not feasible “due to the associated costs of the machine and traffic control requirements”.

“Council has adopted a one-slasher-width mow policy on all Council managed sealed roads and no mowing of the edge of the unsealed road system,” they said.

Ms Flack also suggested that perhaps it would be diligent for Council to notify residents of their right to “opt out” of the spraying activities directly outside their properties.

Cr Smyth agreed with this suggestion and motioned for a report to be brought to council about its weed management activities.

“We’ve come to an age where spraying of poison is not an acceptable way of managing things to a lot of people.

Cr Anne Smyth

“I think if more people knew they were able to say ‘don’t spray outside my house’, there would be a lot more people putting their hands up for that option. That would also mean a saving in costs which could be applied towards the costs associated with mowing.”

The motion calling for staff to bring a report to council was passed unanimously.

Council staff have provided further information about Nambucca’s current stance to glyphosate and weed spraying protocol which we have included here:

  • The recent case in America over the use of glyphosate herbicide has been noted by Council and our insurers.  In the Australian context it is the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority which reviews the scientific information and determines a chemical’s classification.
  • The IARC published a paper on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, which was declared as a ‘probably carcinogenic’ 2A classification to humans through strong mechanistic evidence based on evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and experimental animals. Class 2A carcinogenetic compounds include but are not limited to creosotes, biomass fuel (emissions from wood burning indoor fires), emissions from high temperature frying, consumption of red meat and drinking very hot beverages (above 65 degrees Celsius). Class 1 carcinogens include but are not limited to benzene (found in petroleum products), ethanol found in all alcoholic beverages, the contraceptive pill, silica dust, X-Radiation and diesel engine exhaust.
  • At the moment Council utilises glyphosate (as do a large amount of the general population and the agricultural sector) for the control of weed species, within the bounds of its label constraints. Council utilises “frog friendly” glyphosate, wherever practicable, which states on its label that it can be legally utilised “for the control of emerged weeds in all bodies of fresh and brackish water which may be flowing, non-flowing or transient. Also for weeds on margins of streams, lakes and dams and in channels and drains”. Weed spray operators are trained with ground applicator licences issued by the EPA and are skilled in the identification and control of weedy plant species. 
  • Council will continue to utilise glyphosate based herbicides according to their label and Safety Data Sheet requirements until the manufacturers/suppliers of this herbicide place or Government place restrictions on its use. Of course if there are alternatives which are cost effective and involve less risk than glyphosate then the Council would be interested in using these.  Some people have suggested the use of a steam powered weeder in the public sector, but this method burns fossil fuels creating other carcinogens, is far less time efficient and has Workplace Health and Safety issues surrounding working with steam.   
  • Council is one of the largest land owners/managers within the 1500 square kilometre Nambucca Shire, and does it best to look for alternative weed control including the use of biological control agents, mechanical control (reach mowing, physical removal of weeds) and utilises the least toxic herbicide available for the control of any given weed species.  Council’s Parks staff have been proactive in planting out native grasses on public lands to reduce maintenance costs, including spraying.
  • Herbicide use will always be a contentious issue, especially within public areas, but Council must operate within current budgetary constraints, whilst dealing with different perspectives of the general public towards weed management and safety of users of Council assets.

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