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Editorial: BLSG Insect Control District: Finding common ground

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Posted on March 7, 2019 |
By Angelo Lynn



There’s nothing like an old-fashioned slugfest to get the juices going. The question is always whether the combatants will dust themselves off, shake hands and head to the bar to make amends. For Salisbury’s sake, which voted 98-83 to fully fund its commitment to the BLSG Insect Control District this Tuesday, we hope they do.

In a bruising hour-long discussion on Saturday, about 60 residents behaved, at times, in a manner unbecoming of Town Meeting. Many tried to prevent Dr. Ben Lawton, chairman of the Brandon Leicester Salisbury Goshen Pittsford Insect Control District, from explaining the district’s budget. By several accounts the audience behaved like Trump supporters — self-righteous with an animosity towards others with contrary evidence. And most of those folks would be of a politically liberal persuasion.

The irony of liberal environmentalist acting like Trump supporters is not lost on this editor, whose often leans left of center. But it also provides a ray of hope. Reasonable people can disagree and still find common ground.

With that idea in mind, let’s reset the stage with clarification on last week’s editorial, which was written in response to a letter by Salisbury resident Chris Fastie, and other letters in today’s issue. Mr. Fastie’s letter focused primarily on the harm the BLSG’s adulticide program, mainly the chemical Malathion, might possibly do to Indiana bats. He cites no conclusive studies, but most of us would agree it is a logical concern.

But in his letter he then implies that the BLSG, as well as the federal EPA, could be held liable for killing an endangered species. Because the fine is up to $49,467 (per each count), Fastie inferred the BLSG could not possibly afford to continue such actions. That, of course, was on top of having to defend a suit filed by the Boston-based Toxics Action Center in which he is one of five local litigants.

While his scenario is highly unlikely, Fastie was using the fear of rising legal expenses as a way to kill the district’s adulticide program. Such tactics are commonly termed “nuisance lawsuits” for a reason.

The editorial disagreed with Mr. Fastie’s logic and approach.

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The editorial did not dispute the toxicity of Malathion, as is implied by a letter on this page by Marc Lapin, a professor at Middlebury College and a colleague of Mr. Fastie. On the contrary, the editorial embraced the wisdom of seeking frequent permits. It’s through that process that society adopts new science and updates its understanding of various hazards. We certainly respect Mr. Lapin’s knowledge of toxic substances, and have no doubt that Malathion is a poison to be treated with care and prudence.

In that same vein, a letter on this page by Salisbury resident Jim Andrews is quite reasonable, noting that just as DDT was found to be too detrimental for continued use, we should reconsider the use of Malathion and perhaps move to something else. To the degree there are other approaches that are as effective and affordable, we agree.

We also reference a letter from BLSG chairman Ben Lawton on Page 7, who tries to correct what he calls “half truths and misinformation” akin to the anti-vaccination debates and is an important read, as well as letters by Salisbury residents Barbara Karle and Rebecca Holmes on Page 9. Karle takes us to task for publishing the editorial on the Thursday before Town Meeting, even as it was in response to Mr. Fastie’s letter in the same issue.

The one error in the editorial was saying the $20,000 in legal costs in 2018 was budgeted rather than actual dollars spent; only $150 had been budgeted that year as had been done for many years before. It is true, nonetheless, that the $25,000 in legal expenses budgeted for 2019 increased just $5,000 over 2018 legal spending, and that amount will be spread between five towns. (And I consistently referred to the BLSG as BSLG.)

We agree with Ms. Holmes’ letter that district residents should not be spending anymoney on lawsuits, but again this is because the TAC filed suit against the state and BLSG on behalf of Mr. Fastie and four others.

Some point to the state backing out of the lawsuit as a sign the BLSG is not to be trusted, but the state denied culpability for an obvious reason: the BLSG is the permitted operator and manager of the permit in question and is therefore the responsible party.

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Let’s also clarify that the state runs the BLSG’s larvicide program. It tests and identifies the waters to be treated, and then directs the district when and where to drop the larvicide. So, if the state determines not to drop larvicide in Salisbury’s waters that is their call based on where state experts think it would be most effective. The notion that Salisbury is not getting its money’s worth, and should therefore punish the BLSG, is misguided.

Another misconception is that the BLSG’s insect control program relies mainly on adulticide spraying. It’s entirely the opposite. The state pays for the larvicide program so those expenses are not reflected in the BLSG budget, but they are far more than the adulticide costs. The district encourages more state spending on larvicide, but lack of money is the issue.

Finally, a note about Mr. Fastie’s website, Moosalamoo Woods and Water. Admirably, he is upfront that he is the author of the material. He is also upfront that the site’s mission is to serve as a watchdog of the BLSG and to present information that is often counter to the BLSG’s practices. That’s OK. But the public should be aware that is the group’s intention.

To that end, the Salisbury selectboard and the Salisbury Conservation Commission, as with other district towns, should be judicious in their reliance on Fastie’s site for information, and should be as objective as possible when presenting information to local residents. As Tuesday’s votes showed (all other towns passed their BLSG budgets overwhelmingly), there are two sides to the story and both should be ever-present when discussing how best to control mosquitoes within the district towns.

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But back to shaking hands and sharing that beer in the pub. We should all agree we want a safe environment. We should also agree we need an effective strategy to control a mosquito population that could otherwise make living in these five towns undesirable at best, and, possibly dangerous to public health. That gets to the heart of Mr. Lapin’s point that we all should take a “well-rounded view that captures the complexities of situations we grapple with as individuals and communities.”

We try. As of today, the EPA and the state’s DEC approve the use of Malathion, and recently approved the BLSG’s permit to spray again this year. That’s not to say their reasoning is without consequence, but it acknowledges that living next to mosquito-infected swamps presents hazards as well, and this method of containment meets today’s standards. Countries have fought the dangers of mosquito-borne illnesses (think of malaria) for decades and made substantial progress. The goal here should be to find a reasonable way to contain the mosquito population before a crisis occurs, not after the fact. As a Leicester resident said this Tuesday: “One of the guys who died of the EEE virus (in 2012) was not just a statistic, he was my uncle’s (kin), someone I knew.”

Some fears are real: the fear of being bitten by a mosquito and getting sick; the fear of Malathion and other chemicals causing unintended harm. But some fears we shouldn’t have to abide — and one is the fear of a nuisance lawsuit shutting down a program that for the past 30 years has made a very positive difference to the lives of district residents.

Surely the district would be more successful at finding common cause if that thorn in its side were removed.

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