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City of Sonoma bans Roundup in parks

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Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killing garden product Roundup, is in the crosshairs of the Sonoma City Council, which on Dec. 17 voted to accept the city staff’s recommendation to ban its application in all city parks.

The council also expressed unanimous interest in extending the ban to all city property, which would include street meridians, parking lots, and perhaps most significantly the Mountain Cemetery.

But the council’s action drew the ire of some, including Councilmember David Cook, who felt it did not go far enough. Posting to Facebook apparently while the meeting was still in progress, Cook lambasted the council’s vote as “unbelieveable” and added, “My vote would have been against any Roundup spraying within the city limits and find an organic method.”

Cook and fellow councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti were not present at the meeting, but the three remaining members – Mayor Amy Harrington, and Councilmembers Logan Harvey and Rachel Hundley – represented a quorum, voting 3-0 in favor of the staff recommendation. Public Works Director Colleen Ferguson at the meeting outlined the arguments around the use of glyphosate as a weed control agent which, while used only sparingly in Sonoma continues to evoke strong opinions from its detractors.

“There’s no question but that we are headed toward one of the most severe environmental crises that civilization has ever faced, and we created it,” said Sonoma resident Larry Barnett, during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It’s going to be our job to address things differently to save human civilization.” Barnett joined residents Fred Allebach, Tom Conlon and Donna Warshaw in asking for a city ban on glyphosate.

Allebach suggested greater use of goats in weed control. “If you got a couple goats and let them go down the bike path,” they’d clean it up in no time, he said. He added that former councilmember Gary Edwards, with his connections in agriculture, could spearhead the effort and become Sonoma’s “goat guy.”

The opposition to Roundup (its active ingredient is glyphosate, but the chemical is used in other herbicides as well) is widespread but its supposed risk as a carcinogen is far from universally accepted. Still, Monsanto – the company that has manufactured Roundup since its introduction in 1973 – was slapped with $289 million in damages last August by a San Francisco jury which found that the company had failed to adequately warn consumers of cancer risks, a judgment that was later reduced to $78 million by the case’s judge.

Roundup was most recently news in Sonoma over two years ago when a lab test of California wines found measurable traces of glyphosate in all 10 of the wines from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties submitted for testing, though the wines tested were not identified by label.

The use of Roundup and related herbicides has come under increased scrutiny and prohibition. The City of Sonoma was an early skeptic, beginning to phase out the use of “toxic sprays” in 2001 on city property, and chemical herbicides have not been used in Plaza Park since.

According to the staff report prepared for the Dec. 17 meeting, the city uses glyphosate products as a “last resort” to control weeds, and has reduced the annual use of Roundup from 18 gallons in 2000 to 6 gallons in 2017. The policy of the Public Works Department is to continue using the products for “targeted treatment,” specifically in areas “inaccessible to large mowing decks, along fence lines, adjacent to bike paths, cracks in hardscape, utility access easements, for fire prevention, and areas too dangerous for hand methods.”

As noted in the staff report and summarized by Ferguson at the meeting, “This ban would be most successful if the community develops a greater tolerance for weeds growing in parks and if park visitors take the initiative to pull weeds that they find offensive.”

The city does get calls about unwanted weeds, said Ferguson. “So I’m suggesting if somebody sees a weed, and they want something done about it, it’s right there, they’re there, pull it out!”

The three council members in attendance all favored an eventual ban on glyphosate as administered by the city, both for public health and the safety of workers. But there was some concern that the alternatives – vinegar solutions or other organic means – might not be effective and may present their own health issues.

“I don’t want the void to be filled with something worse,” Hundley said. “We need to work more with the world that we’re in and stop fighting certain parts of it, or at least figure out ways that we can live in peace without having to use chemicals for it.”

Mayor Harrington joined her colleagues in supporting a ban in theory, but also expressed caution in what the alternative might be, though she asked that it be made clear the city council was very concerned with the health risk to city workers as well as citizens.

City Manager Cathy Capriola summarized council view as moving toward a full ban, but wasn’t sure if that was the best solution city-wide, citing street medians where it’s difficult to otherwise deal with unwanted growth.

Councilmember Harrington asked for more detailed information on how the city was using Roundup, and Capriola and Ferguson said public works would put together a more specific overview of glyphosate use. Public Works Operations Manager Trent Hudson proposed a couple months for review; Capriola suggested getting back to council at the end of March with a full report and additional information. “I think information will be the next step,” said Hundley.

Despite the council’s 3-0 vote and direction for staff to evaluate banning it altogether on city property, the move apparently didn’t go far enough for opponents of chemical weed-killers – including the absent Councilmember Cook.

“I do not believe the City of Sonoma should be using one ounce of Roundup,” he told the Index-Tribune the next day, and delay in the face of an early spring was for further study was a mistake. “We’ve been talking about it forever.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.