Friday, April 12, 2024

Soil and water supervisor rallies against reliance on synthetic chemicals in public parks

A pilot project at Olsen Park is testing the efficiency of synthetic-free land care, as soil and water conservation district supervisor Evan Folds pushes the county and city to use green alternatives to chemical-based pesticides and herbicides. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A pilot project is underway at a jointly owned public park, with the hopes of phasing out toxic herbicides and pesticides.

New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor Evan Folds launched a petition urging the city and county to reconsider its land-use care practices. Currently, they both use a variety of chemicals, including glyphosate, a controversial ingredient in Roundup; the federal government is still undergoing research to determine its level of toxicity. 

But Folds wants to see a policy that explains how and why staff use the chemicals they do.

Deciphering information from purchase receipts via a public records request, Folds found 13 herbicides and pesticides the city uses routinely and more than 50 from the county.

Almost all are revealed to be harmful to aquatic life, birds and bees; some go so far as being possibly carcinogenic by the EPA, such as bifenthrin and Chlorothalonil. A few don’t have enough health data available to know the true risks of exposure.

Folds called the list “the worst of the worst,” and noted using man-made materials in natural systems leads to weakened ecosystems. This creates a cycle of having to use more chemicals to create a healthy landscape, he added.

“We minimize the use of fungicides and insecticides and continue to research and explore possible ‘green’ products — but it’s important that they provide satisfactory results that are needed,” New Hanover County Parks and Recreation Director Tara Duckworth said. “There isn’t just one solution to the challenge of pesticides and insecticides and the needs of our parks, but we will continue to work with others — like our turf specialist with NC State — to assist us in ensuring we have expert knowledge in our processes.”

Folds started an awareness campaign in February that has 165 signatures of support to build landscaping budgets around healthier practices.

“The hope of the moment is to show brass tax, it’s not more expensive to do the right thing,” Folds told Port City Daily on a call Tuesday.

In 2020, Folds sought a grant from Stonyfield Organics, which was accepted and approved by the city for $10,000 in May 2021. It helped implement an organic land management pilot project at Olsen Park, a 60-acre space owned by both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.

Effectively, the goal is to use compost and avoid chemicals to grow the soil on two of Olsen Park’s five ballfields. 

City staff, along with consultants Beyond Pesticides and Osbourn Organics, will then compare results: the soil health on two softball fields for effectiveness of a synthetic-free program versus three fields that received the “traditional” method of landscape care.

“We’re not trying to replace pesticides [with green alternatives] but mitigating the need for them over time,” Folds explained.

Crews first gathered a baseline on the property being tested, with pictures and soil tests in 2022. The report was delivered to city staff in August 2022 and showed municipal fields are low in organic matter, according to city community services assistant director Sally Thigpen.

The use of only organic methods on the two ballfields officially began in April 2023.

“Anecdotally, staff are seeing similar turf performance as the other fields at this time,” Thigpen said.

She also relayed the city’s consultants estimate it could take up to three years to build the organic matter in the soil and reap the benefits.

The success rate cannot be visually perceived, Folds said; knowing if the program is working can only be derived from the health of soil — meaning more organic matter — not being exposed to toxic pesticides and herbicides.

“We turn the herbicide pump off and weeds start growing in the ballfield, we think ‘it’s not working,’” Folds said. “But it’s how it’s supposed to work.”

Part of the vision is phasing out pesticides and herbicides, such as 2,4-D, widely used and leads to severe eye irritation. It can also cause nervous system damage, coughing, dizziness, nausea, and blood, liver and kidney toxicity, according to the EPA. Dogs are more susceptible to side effects when exposed, including vomiting, lethargy, convulsions and diarrhea. 

The main aim for Folds is to establish a protocol for land care in the city and county.

“It’s not about banning things,” he added.

Except for maybe glyphosate — a common ingredient in Roundup — used by both the city and county. According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the substance can now be found in 80% of urine samples of people nationwide.

In 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported there were no health risks linked to glyphosate when used according to its label. 

Two years later, a federal court ordered the agency to reevaluate its findings. A judge determined the EPA did not have adequate research to back up its determination that glyphosate was not toxic and not a carcinogen. Research is still ongoing at this time.

However, in 2015, the World Health Organization listed it as “a probable human carcinogen.”

Glyphosate is particularly dangerous because it’s water soluble, meaning trace residues could occur in food products. Though the chemical is not often applied directly to crops being grown for human consumption.

The city treats broadleaf weeds — such as poison ivy, invasive English ivy competing with native vegetation and nutsedge in ornamental landscapes — impacting infrastructure and public use areas, such as sidewalks and parks. 

“Targeted spot treatment is typical,” Thigpen said. “[Staff] are required to follow the product label for timing and rates.”

According to Folds’ research, the city spent $7,652 on pesticides and herbicides from July 2019 to December 2020, with $644 of that on 16 gallons of glyphosate.

In fiscal year 2022, the county budgeted $40,000 for chemicals and pesticides for the 2,900 acres of public space it manages. It uses glyphosate on landscape beds and sidewalk cracks but not on athletic turf fields.

“The takeaway on cost is that once you sync on the reality of the chemicals being used and their connection to chronic disease, we don’t really spend enough on pesticides to be worried about the cost,” Folds said.

As a separate initiative, he is partnering with Thigpen to find safe alternatives to glyphosate.

“My aim is to ensure our decision makers are knowledgeable enough on the subject to make sure our priorities are in the right place,” Folds said. “How much is spraying poison on playgrounds worth?”

He also said Thigpen was facing pushback about the price of switching from glyphosate.

“She is facing the reality that the glyphosate replacement is ‘twice as much,’ and she has no budget to work with, and more critically, not enough staff to do things differently,” Folds said.

Contact Organics, Folds’ recommended alternative, costs $175 per gallon versus a $40 2.5-gallon jug of Ranger Pro, containing glyphosate.

Thigpen said, in general, the city follows Integrated Pest Management practices — supported by the EPA and USDA — and employs qualified, licensed applicators.

They use “many tools” to tackle pests and weed pressures in public spaces, she said.

“Herbicides are just one tool, and our team uses a whole host of cultural and mechanical practices, like mulching, mowing, hand weeding and planting native plants that are less susceptible to pests,” Thigpen explained. “The city does periodically test new products that could reduce impacts to the environment, the public and staff.”

The county, co-owner of Olsen Park, is also actively following the outcomes of the pilot plan.

Duckworth said the county will continue to work to “find a balance” between what is needed on public spaces — such as field recovery from high-demand usage, mitigating fire ants, and controlling invasive weeds — and the impact to the end user.

A lifelong entrepreneur in natural approaches to lawn care and self-proclaimed “soil doctor,” Folds said he’s urging local leaders to think “critically” and outside the box.

“We need to find a way to tell the larger story to get the city and county on board in the same direction,” he added.

To assist with creating a more universal policy around natural land care, Folds recommends initiating a committee.

“Given the potential complexity of the subject, I think the best way is a task force that can capture public and professional input into best practices for a comprehensive approach to sustainability,” he said.

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