Niantic community bans herbicide Roundup, hopes others follow suit
East Lyme — In a move designed to not only help protect the environment but hopefully inspire other shoreline communities to do likewise, the Pine Grove Niantic Association recently banned the use of Monsanto's Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides within all areas of its neighborhood, including on the properties of its private homeowners.
Citing concerns about the chemical's potential environmental impacts, as well as possible health risks, PGNA board president Debbie Jett-Harris said she spearheaded the initiative after her husband discovered baby lobsters nesting in the banks near their home — “a rarity for the river nowadays” that highlights its fragility.
“The biggest message that we want to send to the world is that Pine Grove is comprised of a group of people that are very ecologically and environmentally aware and concerned about the health of the river," Jett-Harris said. "When you live in a coastal community, you cannot deny the fact that we need to preserve our river and its wildlife. It’s a really big issue for us here. So we are hoping other coastal communities will also follow suit with the ban of the glyphosate."
The Environmental Protection Agency in April said it continues to find "that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label." But some municipalities in Connecticut and other states still have elected to stop using the chemical within common areas, especially as Monsanto has faced lawsuits claiming the weed killer causes cancer.
PGNA, which taxes its residents annually and is governed by its own board, consists of about 155 homes and is viewed as a homeowners' association by the town of East Lyme. While the ban passed in an 8-2 PGNA board vote in May, the decision has been met with skepticism by some town officials, as well as the two association members who voted against it, because they are not sure if the ban is legally enforceable.
'No actual proof'
First Selectman Mark Nickerson said Tuesday that he was not sure about the legality of enforcing such a ban on private residents within the neighborhood, stating that the association, though it has ownership of common areas, does not formally own the properties of its residents.
Public Works Director Joe Bragaw said that Pine Grove, which is technically considered its own municipality, does indeed have the right to govern what’s used within its common areas, but it also cannot dictate the use of the chemical on the town-owned roads, as well as their right of ways, which run through the neighborhood. He could not speak to the legality of how the association dictates its private homeowners.
East Lyme attorney Ed O’Connell said Thursday that he could not comment on the legality of enforcing the ban, stating that the issue was not within his jurisdiction.
Association member Steven Telke, who voted against the ban, explained Thursday that he felt the rule “was pointless,” especially as he believed the association has no real way of enforcing it.
He also worried that members of the association board believe too wholeheartedly that the chemical is cancer causing when, in reality, Telke said he believes it “is probable. Not definite.”
“There is no actual proof that it causes cancer,” he said. “It’s truly a pointless rule to have.”
Though Telke said he does not use herbicides containing glyphosate on his Pine Grove property, he also expressed some concern about infringing on the rights of private property owners within Pine Grove.
Former association board president, Allen Steiger, who was, until recently, a member of the board, also voted against the ban for similar reasons, Telke said.
Steiger did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
'Stewards of the river'
Jett-Harris maintains, however, that Pine Grove, considered a quasi-municipality of its own by both the state and town, has the authority to create and enforce its own rules passed within the association’s rules and regulations.
“There can be repercussions. We can enforce it if we want,” she said. “But our community has chosen to just follow the rule. We put it under our rules and regulations and it’s not a problem. Everyone agrees hands down except for two people out of 155 houses.”
“Everyone is on board,” she added, stating that the ban was detailed at the association’s annual meeting at the end of May, which Jett-Harris said was attended by about 30 people. “Can we stop everyone from using it? No. But if 10 people are using it, and then eight people stop, then I consider it a win."
While taking an evening stroll throughout the neighborhood with her husband Monday, Rena Powers said she agreed with the ban, stating that "the more we do to protect the environment, the better.”
Bill Carr, a longtime neighborhood resident who described himself as environmentally conscious of the ways in which he maintains his property, said he is fine with the ban.
“In my opinion, you have to use a lot of it and be exposed to it on a systemic basis for it to cause harm, but I will comply with the rule,” he said Monday, while standing in front of his property, which directly abuts Niantic River.
“All the soil around here is sand, so everything put on the land goes right through and into the river,” he added. “We as homeowners in Pine Grove are stewards of the river. That’s our responsibility. We do have to be aware of all this because at the end of the day if the Niantic River gets worse, then there will be nothing over here.”
‘We take pride in this'
Diane Jorsey, Supervisor of the Department of Energy and Environment’s Pesticide Program, said Thursday that while her department is aware of widespread concern associated with glyphosate, "based on the science that's out there," DEEP would not classify the chemical as a restricted-use product.
“The reports that we have been made aware of indicate that glyphosate is not a probable carcinogen, and specifically we rely on guidance from EPA when making product registrations in the state," she said.
Despite the lack of a statewide restriction, some municipalities have stopped using the chemical. Most recently, that includes the Waterford Department of Public Works, which told The Day in April it would instead use "organic, environmentally friendly, nontoxic applications this year ... in a means that's not going to cause problems for residents and surrounding waterways."
Jorsey could not verify Thursday which municipalities or Connecticut-based homeowners associations have placed bans on the chemical, stating that DEEP does not keep track.
Monsanto, meanwhile, has vigorously defended glyphosate despite heavy payouts in recent court cases and calls for bans. The company, owned by pharmaceutical giant Bayer, cites "more than 800 scientific studies and reviews" over several decades, including by the National Institute of Health, World Health Organization and EPA, that have "consistently reaffirmed that glyphosate does not cause cancer."
In a 2015 report challenged by Monsanto, however, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic" to humans based on "real-world exposure" leading to limited evidence of cancer in humans.
A message left with Bayer was not immediately responded to on Thursday.
Despite scientific research by the EPA and other organizations backing Monsanto's arguments, Jett-Harris maintained that a Pine Grove ban was imperative, especially considering the neighborhood, surrounded by the Niantic River, is "basically sitting on permeable sand which leeches everything back into the river."
“We take great pride in this,” Jett-Harris said while touring through the neighborhood Monday, noting PGNA is also installing rain gardens to preserve its banks from erosion and protect the river from runoff, as well as other environmental initiatives throughout the neighborhood.
"Everyone that lives here in Pine Grove really loves and cares about Pine Grove," Jett-Harris said. "They care about what goes on here and they care about keeping it as healthy as possible."