The White Pass and Yukon Railroad has applied to governments in Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon to spray herbicide along its train tracks.
But the chemical White Pass wants to use is not without detractors, and that has some Yukoners questioning the decision.
White Pass president John Finlayson says weeds along the track “flourished” last summer thanks to particularly hot temperatures.
By law, the company is required to keep the tracks, which travel from Carcross through British Columbia to Skagway, clear.
In the Yukon that means the section from Carcross along Lake Bennett to the British Columbia border.
Transport Canada requires the rail beds be kept clear so visual inspections can be done. Too many weeds also can affect the stability of the track, Finlayson said.
In other years mechanical equipment has been used to clear the way. But that doesn’t get rid of the roots, Finlayson said.
“The root systems of the weeds maintain moisture and mass and degrade the rail bed, which compromises the safety of our operation.”
After a warm summer last year “the weeds flourished” and Transport Canada requested the company take care of the problem, Finlayson said. White Pass made a verbal commitment to have something done by the end of this year.
So the company has filed requests for permits in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska to use a chemical herbicide for the first time “in 15 or 20 years,” Finlayson said.
The product in question is Aquamaster, a herbicide by Monsanto. The active chemical in Aquamaster is glyphosate.
Monsanto website says Aquamaster is ranked at the lowest level on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicity scale. “Glyphosate has rarely been detected in drinking water, and has never been found at concentrations exceeding the U.S. EPA’s drinking water standard.”
But the chemical is currently under review by that same protection agency.
The EPA does mandated registration reviews on chemicals every 15 years to ensure they are safe according to the newest scientific standards.
The review of glyphosate has been going on since 2009. The agency says the review should be complete by the end of the year.
Public comment on the chemical has been divided. Farmers and farm organizations call it an effective tool for controlling weeds in crops like corn and soybeans.
Other organizations have raised concerns about the increased use of the chemical since it was last reviewed and how that might affect the environment and human health.
“As part of the re-evaluation, in conjunction with Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, a large number of studies conducted with glyphosate have been reviewed,” a spokesperson for the EPA said in an email.
Yukon Conservation Society’s Lewis Rifkind said the society is against herbicides being approved for use along the tracks.
He points to one particularly sensitive area that travels right along the Bennett Arm, which is headwater for the Yukon River.
“Maybe there are areas of the railway line where using herbicides might not be a big issue, but it’s right next to Bennett Arm…. You do not want to apply herbicides there because it’s going to go into the water and then into the entire ecosystem,” he said.
“That’s our position. The stuff is under review by the EPA, why take the risk?”
Rifkind said other options should be considered, especially close to water.
“What about salmon? We know the chinook run’s a disaster this year,” he said.
“We’re not saying that herbicide could wipe out the chinook, but you know, you get these ‘death by a thousand cuts’ scenarios. Why take the risk?”
In the Yukon, an assessment by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board would not be required, since the herbicides are classified as “commercial” by Health Canada. The chemical is also available off-the-shelf to individuals for home use. All the company needs is an OK from Environment Yukon.
If the permit for the Yukon goes forward, it won’t be the first time herbicides with glyphosate have been approved for use in the territory.
This time last year Yukon Energy got approval to test herbicides as a way to control plant growth under power lines. Three herbicides were tested at two 10-by-10-metre plots near Whitehorse.
Yukon Energy didn’t use the same product as White Pass is suggesting, but its products did contain glyphosate.
Spokesperson Janet Patterson said the company is spending this summer collecting data on how the chemicals worked. That has to happen before deciding if the program should be expanded.
“We need the summer so we can watch those plots and see what they do. We hope to have some information by the end of the summer about how they perform,” she said.
Patterson said Yukon Energy is also looking to research how the chemicals perform in the cold.
For Rifkind, that is an important piece.
“Because it’s colder up here, one would suspect it takes longer to breakdown,” he said.
“Because once you get into the winter cycle, you’re not going to get any of the bacteria or bugs that can attack these herbicides and break them down.”
Finlayson said White Pass is currently doing all it can to ensure that the safest, most responsible methods are used.
Although the permits ask to use glyphosate, nothing is a done deal until the chemical is sprayed, he said.
“Until it goes down, nothing is written in stone. If something comes across our desk that says, ‘Whoa this is not responsible,’ if we get that message, we’ll certainly look at other options,” he said.
The company has hired a licensed applicator, with experience working across North America, to do the work if it’s approved.
White Pass has given Transport Canada a verbal commitment to have the weeds taken care of by the end of the year, Finlayson said.
There is no timeline from Environment Yukon around how long it will take to consider the permit application.
“It’s important for people to understand that we’re not doing this for esthetics and we’re not doing this as an easy way out,” Finlayson said. “It’s our responsibility to rid the bed of weeds and we are going to great lengths to determine if what we are doing is responsible.”
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