Alaska Supreme Court Approves Herbicides Along Railroad

Published August 3, 2010

The Alaska Railroad will be able to utilize chemical herbicides to control dangerous weed growth along its tracks, as the Alaska Supreme Court has rejected appeals from environmental activist groups to force the railroad to employ other weed-control methods.

A state superior court and the Alaska Supreme Court had issued temporary stays against herbicide application, but the Supreme Court on July 23 lifted its stay and dismissed the activists’ case.

Alternative Methods Ineffective
The Alaska Railroad sought permission from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for permission to apply gylphosate, a chemical component of Round Up, along 30 miles of track south of Anchorage, after the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) warned the railroad it would impose fines or operating restrictions if the railroad did not do a better job controlling weeds along the tracks.

The weeds, according to FRA, pose serious safety problems for trains operating along the tracks. The Alaska Railroad has always employed alternative, nonchemical weed control strategies along all of its tracks, including the 30-mile stretch of track subject to the FRA warming.

The DEC approved the railroad’s request, but environmental activist groups appealed the decision. When DEC denied the appeal, with the exception of a few locations in which it was alleged groundwater wells were very near the affected tracks, the environmental activist groups filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the herbicide applications.

A state superior court and the Alaska Supreme Court granted stays against the railroad while considering the activists’ case, but the high court ultimately lifted the stays and denied further review.

Applications Can Begin
The DEC order allowing herbicide application along the 30-mile stretch of railroad, with the exception of seven discrete locations where groundwater wells are located within 200 feet of the treatment area, remains in effect.

“The Alaska Railroad is very pleased by today’s Supreme Court decision to lift the emergency stay it issued last week while it considered all the briefs filed by the parties,” said Phyllis Johnson, vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

“We plan to begin spraying under the permit as soon as personnel can get on-site, weather permitting, of course, and consistent with the conditions imposed by the permit itself and the commissioner’s partial stay that was issued on June 30,” she added.

Activists Claim Health Risks
The environmental activist groups opposing herbicide application were predictably disappointed by the court’s decision.

“Well, obviously we’re very disappointed in that decision,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. 

“We think that it’s a mistake, first, that state of Alaska issued the permit, and, secondly, that the court decided in favor of the state to allow the herbicide spraying to continue,” Miller explained.

Miller claims the chemical mixture can be harmful to the water quality, drinking water sources, animal habitat, and human health.

Toby Smith, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment, agrees with Miller’s concerns.

“We think there are other ways that the railroad can control the weed growth on the tracks. And so we prefer that the Round Up type product not be used,” Smith said.

“We feel very strongly that this herbicide is safe for the intended use, and that its use is critical as a component of our integrated vegetation management plan,” countered Johnson. “More importantly, the state’s environmental regulatory agency spent several months reviewing the science and came to the same conclusion.”

Weeds Pose Safety Issues
Excessive vegetation poses several safety problems for railroad operations. Most importantly, moisture buildup from weeds can cause railroad ties to decay faster and degrade track structure, and excessive vegetation can hinder signal visibility and conceal crucial track conditions from train operators and inspectors.

The Alaska Railroad has been fined in the past for noncompliance with the Federal Railroad Administration’s safety mandates for vegetation growth in and around the tracks. In 2008 the railroad received notice of 220 specific violations of track conditions related to excessive vegetation.

In 2009 FRA sent the railroad a letter deeming the situation to be critical. The safety concerns were particularly important because the railroad transports approximately 500,000 passengers each year.

Alternative Methods Debated
The Alaska Railroad has attempted to use alternative vegetation controls, such as mechanized rail-based brushcutters, off-rail hydroaxing, and wayside manual cutting. These have produced insufficient results.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics claims the railroad company has not given the use of alternative methods enough time to work.

“In fact, there are a range of alternatives that can be used instead of herbicides, and the railroad simply has wanted to justify the use of herbicides for mere perspective of quickly dealing with these weeds when they haven’t done the proper maintenance they need to do,” Miller said.

Johnson countered, “The FRA has indicated that it is not satisfied with our efforts to control vegetation with alternative methods and issued a warning of fines and/or operating restrictions. As FRA has pointed out, overgrown vegetation creates a serious safety concern.”

Safety Is Primary Concern
Johnson emphasized that although herbicide application is less costly than alternative weed-control methods, costs were not the primary factor in the railroad’s decision to apply herbicides along the 30-mile stretch of track.

“The cost factors are certainly important, but our driving factor is safety, not costs,” Johnson explained. “The FRA’s chief safety officer particularly focused on how vegetation can hinder critical visual inspection of track structure that is essential to preventing accidents. We are very relieved to be able to address these critical track locations with glyphosate while continuing to use nonchemical means of control in other locations.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.