Requiring natural gas pipeline companies and utilities to provide Letcher County citizens with advance notice of herbicide spraying operations conducted from the air is not an unreasonable regulation, District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming said this week during a special meeting of the Letcher Fiscal Court.
“I think notices are a good idea,” Fleming told officials with Pittsburgh-based EQT, the region’s largest natural gas company. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Monday’s meeting was called by Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward to give EQT officials the chance to respond to Fleming and three of the county’s other four magistrates who have asked Letcher County Attorney Jamie Hatton to draft a proposed county ordinance requiring the advance notification of aerial spraying. Ward had said at the court’s June 16 meeting that he would contact EQT officials and ask them to voluntarily comply with the court’s wishes.
The EQT officials attending this week’s special meeting were Maurice Royster, the company’s government affairs director, and Maverick Bentley, director of operations for right of way maintenance.
Royster told the court that EQT stands “head and shoulders” above other natural gas companies in terms of safety for employees and the public, and in its concern for the environment. He claimed that of all the complaints registered over aerial spraying conducted by natural gas companies, those concerning EQT make up only about onehalf of one percent of the total.
Royster also used the called meeting as a platform to talk about the natural gas industry’s perceived role in the decline in coal mining in eastern Kentucky. Royster said it is not true that natural gas and coal are in competition with each other, adding that he expects coal to make a comeback. Although Royster didn’t provide specifics, he said that Letcher County will be well situated when coal does make a comeback, as the county holds reserves of both energy sources. Royster also said that mineral severance taxes from natural gas paid to the county totaled more than $1.3 million last year. He said EQT paid $757,991 in property tax in Letcher County last year.
Maverick Bentley made a technical presentation and described the process for aerial spraying, including a description of the two chemicals that are mixed to provide the herbicide affect. He said the herbicide only affects broadleaf and woody plants but leaves natural grasses to thrive in the rights of way. He added that state regulations require gas companies to keep rights of way for transmission lines clear so they can be inspected and are accessible for repairs.
Bentley told the court that Industrial Helicopter Inc. of Lafayette, Louisiana conducts the spraying operations for EQT. He said the system for transferring herbicide from the supply truck to the helicopter tank is sealed to prevent exposure to work crews. He said the herbicide is not harmful to humans and livestock.
Bentley said the helicopters use GPS markers to ensure that only designated target areas are sprayed. He said the company uses buffer zone maps and works with private property owners to make certain their property is not sprayed if they want it left alone. Bentley added that the spray is released through a device like a showerhead that disperses droplets that are large enough to prevent them from being blown out of the target area by the helicopter downdraft.
Bentley said the two chemicals used to kill unwanted weeds and trees are Du- Pont’s Export XP and Dow’s Garlon 3A. He said both are used to spray pasturelands. Bentley said that in some instances, EQT employees have been accidentally sprayed with the chemicals and there were no adverse affects.
Fleming told Bentley and Royster that his main concern is getting adequate notifi cation to people in areas that are set to be sprayed, and that precautions are taken to make sure the herbicide doesn’t carry over to places where people did not want it to be sprayed.
Fleming said that while he does not believe EQT would intentionally harm the public, he believes gas companies and other utilities spraying herbicides in Letcher County should be willing to use a combination of newspaper ads and other methods to ensure that people in areas affected are properly notified. Fleming said after the meeting that he thinks the public notices should also include the names of the herbicides being used, the ingredients, and the safety warnings included with them.
District Two Magistrate Terry Adams asked the EQT officials if direct contact with livestock would be harmful. Bentley answered that any effect the wayward herbicides would have on animals would be minimal.
Royster told the court that while state regulations will be the ultimate guideline for EQT’s aerial spraying, the company is willing to discuss ways with the court to notify people and to further limit accidental exposure to the spray. Fleming told Royster the court was not being unreasonable when it voted 5-1 at its June meeting to pursue such an ordinance.
“I don’t think the court has asked for anything that isn’t reasonable,” said Fleming. “We don’t want to interfere with you, but we want to protect our people.”
EQT and other natural gas companies began stepping up their aerial herbicide campaigns last year. Fleming said that as the practice of spraying from helicopters grows he continues to hear more complaints from constituents. He said the first few phone calls he had received about the spraying revived bad memories of his service with the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
“My skin hurts me because I got sprayed with Agent Orange in Vietnam,” said Fleming. “It was a lot of years before we knew it harmed people, but a lot of Americans suffered from it. It (the phone calls) took me back to a time when I really trusted the government and DOW Chemical.”
Fleming believes EQT and other gas companies and utilities are using aerial weed spraying to save on costs associated with having to pay to hire individual crews to use backpack sprayers and weed trimmers. Fleming said the aerial spraying eliminates valuable jobs in an already-depressed county while also having a negative effect on property owners who may not want their land sprayed with herbicide.
Fleming said other magistrates in Letcher County have been receiving complaints about the aerial spraying as well. He said one fellow magistrate told him about receiving a call from a constituent who was upset because his goats began losing their hair after they were sprayed with the herbicides.
Also on the agenda for the Monday’s special fiscal court meeting was the payment of bills.