Bugged in Ballard

State bureaucrats bungle the spraying for gypsy moths by downplaying the scientific evidence in their favor.

BACK IN FEBRUARY, the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced a plan to spray a square mile or so of Ballard and Magnolia Bluff to nip a feared infestation by Asian gypsy moths in the bud. Aerial spraying requires the permission of the governor, but WSDA experts were confident they could get a go-ahead; after all, didn’t they have all the scientific, medical, and economic arguments on their side?

Now, less than three months later, WSDA’s plan is probably dead, unless Governor Gary Locke demonstrates more political courage than he’s yet evinced in office. Three months of bungling, stonewalling, and sheer fecklessness on the part of Ag’s own staff has so antagonized neighborhood activists, environmentalists, politicians, and most of the press that a joint endorsement of the program by Ralph Nader, Leonardo di Caprio, and the late Mother Teresa couldn’t save it.

Scientifically, there’s no question that the European gypsy moth, introduced accidentally to North America about 1870, is a destructive and tenacious pest, costing East Coast tree farmers untold millions a year in lost timber and taxpayers more millions in the fight to slow its spread westward. There’s also no question that the Siberian subspecies of the moth, first spotted in 1991 on a freighter from the Russian Far East, poses an even greater threat to West Coast forests.

Finally, there’s absolutely no question that by far the lowest-impact method available to combat moth outbreaks is by aerially spraying endangered areas with the biological agent known as btk. A variety of the naturally occurring soil organism Bacillus thuringensis, which kills moth larvae by destroying their digestive tracts, btk was widely hailed as an environmentally benign substitute for chemical pesticides like Orthene when it was introduced in the late 1950s. After 40 years on the market, btk has been subjected to a number of large, carefully controlled epidemiological studies, which have failed to turn up the slightest statistically plausible trace of ill health effects on human and mammal populations, even in areas sprayed repeatedly in a single season.

But times change. By the early ’90s btk was by far the most frequently applied biological insect-control agent and the general public’s worry level had increased proportionately. Concerns were raised about btk’s possible health effects on humans and other mammals, not to mention the impact of various secret “inert” ingredients in commercial sprays, designed to disperse the btk bugs effectively and make them stick to vegetation. Btk’s most convinced proponents couldn’t deny that a lot of decorative and valuable insects (including butterflies) are killed off by the treatment as surely as gypsy moths are. And just how much evidence of infestation should it take to trigger a btk counterattack? One hundred live male bugs lured to a trap by the emanations of breeding-female pheromone? Ten? One?

Seattle’s “infestation” last year added up to one male trapped at the intersection of Ballard Avenue and Market and one “egg mass” discovered (and destroyed) on an impounded Russian freighter nearby. It’s impossible to quantify risk from a sample that small. Nevertheless, WSDA’s scientific advisory committee decided to spend $600,000 on three aerial raids on the area within a half-mile radius of the discovery site, to make sure no female moths lived to reproduce their kind.

Maybe it was fear of appearing to be overreacting, maybe lack of funds and personnel, maybe just the inherent unwillingness of bureaucrats to reveal anything to the public if not forced to do so. Whatever the reason, WSDA didn’t marshal its impressive scientific facts and go out to sell its program to the affected public. Instead it followed a classic stealth strategy: scheduling the public meetings required by law but failing to publicize them, brushing off or refusing to answer questions raised by those who managed to learn about them anyway, maintaining a low profile with members of the press, providing only minimal information upfront, answering questions only when asked directly, shunting the hard ones to other agencies, and professing ignorance of any studies or information that failed to support or that contradicted its own.

Before the era of e-mail and the World Wide Web, such hunker-in-the-bunker tactics worked like a charm; before enough people realized their backyard was going to be buzzed, the buzzing had already taken place. Today, they simply fuel the paranoia and suspicion, reasonable or not, which people feel about any public activity that might affect their health, property, or general well-being. Within weeks of Ag’s furtive announcement of its plans, dozens of Magnolia and Ballard residents were busy corresponding via listservs, exchanging the URLs of anti-spray Web pages, and cataloging phone numbers and e-mail addresses of elected officials.

As the pressure mounted, Ag employees retreated farther into their shells instead of riding out to meet the enemies armed with Web pages and stats of their own. And they were well equipped to mount an offensive: When the Asian gypsy moth strain first appeared in the US back in 1991, 100,000 densely settled acres around Tacoma were blitzed with btk; studies by the state department of public health turned up no ill effects.

Again, after massive btk sprayings on Vancouver Island last year, the Victoria public health authority published results of two highly detailed studies, one of children specifically “at risk” and another of the general population. The latter showed no measurable ill effects; the former turned up one case of asthma, which may or may not have been worsened by exposure to the spray. But instead of forcefully presenting the evidence supporting their position, Department spokespersons merely repeated dogged variations on the formula: “Our experts believe that this is the right approach. Trust us.”

If there was any chance of that happening, it vanished last week when Washington Toxics Coalition’s Lauri Valeriano, sifting through papers in a folder belonging to WSDA’s designated gypsy moth spokesman, discovered a list of draft “answers to questions from individuals who oppose the gypsy moth program.”

Among the unresponsive responses suggested for those charged with informing the public: “Extensive testing is required . . . before approval of an insecticide . . . but I don’t know what specific tests were conducted on btk. . . . I don’t know of any symptoms you could look for that you could attribute to btk. . . .” The list also included the following “NOTE: To person opposing the program, we initially don’t say anything more than the above. If they claim people have had adverse reactions . . . we will tell them some number of persons have reported such health effects. . . . If they persist in wanting more information . . . we tell them that written information about proposed treatments are made available at selected public libraries around the state. . . .”

Valeriano’s discovery may have been the clincher for state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, whose 36th District includes the area slated for spraying. In an April 26 letter to Governor Locke, Kohl-Welles comes down firmly for a gubernatorial denial of permission to spray. Noting that, like her constituents, she learned of Ag’s plans for her district only when she read about them in the papers, Kohl-Welles describes a two-month self-tutorial on the issue, leading to her conclusion “that the risks of moth infestation . . . do not justify the very intrusive, extensive, and expensive treatment operation planned. . . . Nor do I believe the department has handled the situation properly with regard to its contacts with the community and its perceived lack of regard for public input.”

The anti-moth faction may not be garnering many column inches or sound bites just now, but don’t count them out. Forest scientists and public health experts may not swing much weight with the Gov compared to a state senator and a band of angry and well-organized voters, but they have allies whose voices don’t need to be raised to be heard. The Asian gypsy moth strain is a known chomper on evergreens as well as the deciduous trees favored by its suaver European siblings. With names like Weyerhaeuser, Simpson, McMillan-Bloedel, Boise-Cascade, and Georgia-Pacific arrayed on the side of Science, a pose of principled opposition could be pricey.

Read the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s answers to questions posed by those who oppose the Gypsy Moth Program.

Visit the Federal government’s broad-spectrum gypsy moth source material list.

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