Skagway Assembly voices concern over herbicide spraying

(Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie) White Pass Train, Klondike Highway, Yukon, Car Cross, Wikimedia Commons
(Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie)

The Skagway Borough Assembly Thursday voted to send a letter expressing concern with a private company spraying herbicide within the town site. Some residents are apprehensive the chemicals could put Skagway’s drinking water quality at risk.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is contracting with another company to spray an herbicide call Oust along tracks this summer. The goal is to cut down on weeds and vegetation to facilitate drainage in the rail bed and clear visual or physical obstacles. Tyler Rose works for White Pass. At Thursday’s assembly meeting, he said clearing weeds is necessary for passenger safety.

“We said this many times, we haul over 400,000 passengers,” Rose said. “The safety of the right-of-way is of the utmost importance to us.”

But some community and assembly members have a different safety concern.

“We’re trying to become a cleaner community,” said Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr., who helped draft an ordinance in 2014 that put restrictions on herbicides in the borough.

At the time, White Pass was planning to spray Roundup along tracks. The company indefinitely postponed that action in 2014. But recently, White Pass announced that they were again planning to spray Roundup. After another public outcry, the railroad switched herbicides, from Roundup to Oust.

Burnham said he appreciates the gesture. But he’s still concerned.

“I think that is really not what the community wanted when they were sending us letters two years ago about this issue,” he said. “They were concerned about our water quality, our environment, health of the people.”

Water quality seems to be the major concern. Letters from residents note that Skagway has a reputation for pristine drinking water. The town has a waiver from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that relieves the public water system from testing for synthetic organic chemical contaminants – which include herbicides.

Burnham and others worry the spraying could jeopardize Skagway’s clean water exemption and put them on the line for costly testing, or more.

“I think that would be the worst case scenario,” Burnham said. “If things cascade, we’re most likely gonna end up with a source water treatment plant in the next 30 years anyway, but it could significantly increase the need for that.”

Assembly members unanimously agreed to direct the borough attorney to send a letter to White Pass. The letter will voice the assembly’s concern with herbicide spraying in the town-site, south of the 2A Bridge.

White Pass’s Tyler Rose expressed frustration at the meeting. He said they’re trying to be good neighbors by choosing an herbicide that is not in the list of restricted chemicals in local Code. White Pass maintains that since the area they’re working in is a federal right-of-way, it is not subject to local regulations.

White Pass and the herbicide applicator company held a forum right before the assembly meeting to address concerns. Rose said they talked about the ‘widespread’ use of Oust by other railroads and companies.

“And one of the questions we didn’t have answered with what has DOT used, what have other entities used,” Rose said. “Our own municipality has used some of these things, though not on an industrial scale. It’s just very frustrating for us to be treated a little bit differently at time(s), it seems.  And we are trying to be as best we can, be good neighbors, but meet those responsibilities.”

Rose told KHNS Friday that White Pass plans to go forward with spraying. He said it will happen ‘sometime in the next three weeks.’

“Right now what we’re planning to do is the entirety of the active line, which would be from Skagway to Carcross,” Rose said.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the assembly approved the FY ’17 borough budget after a fourth reading.

The assembly postponed discussion about using cruise passenger head taxes to pay for a new water well and tank. That topic may be revisited at the next meeting, on July 7.

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