Environment Yukon is giving Yukoners a chance to comment on plans to use herbicides along the White Pass and Yukon Route railway tracks.
A public review period is required whenever someone applies for a permit to spray herbicides, said Environment Minister Currie Dixon.
This is the first time the government has had to review such a permit since 2005.
“It’s something that we do as a matter of course with regards to these type of permits,” Dixon said.
White Pass has applied for a Yukon permit to use herbicides on the tracks that run from Carcross to the British Columbia border.
It says it’s required by Transport Canada to take care of the weeds that grow along the track. According to the company, mechanical weed whacking can take care of some of the problem, but leaving the roots in place can damage tracks and make them potentially unsafe.
In an earlier interview the White Pass identified the chemical in its plans as Monsanto’s Aquamaster. In fact, that product is on the application for the U.S. portion of the track, not the Yukon.
For the Yukon track, the company has applied to use two different products: Visonmax and Arsenal.
Like Aquamaster, the active chemical in Visonmax is glyphosate. Glyphosate is currently under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A hazardous material information sheet on Visonmax warns to “avoid direct applications to any body of water. Do not use in areas where adverse impact on domestic water or aquatic species is likely.”
A similar sheet for Arsenal lists the main chemical as imazapyr, but notes that the product could be mixed with glyphosate if needed. Arsenal is listed as “toxic to non-target aquatic and terrestrial plants.”
The Yukon Conservation Society raised concerns about the use of herbicides, particularly on the tracks that run parallel to the Bennett Lake Arm.
“Because the Bennett Lake is right next to it, I don’t think you can avoid it. Even if you went in with the best of intentions, you can’t get around it,” said Lewis Rifkind.
Environment Yukon says White Pass has applied to use either product. That means two separate permits.
They would spray from a boom running along the tracks.
The 14-day public review period began earlier this week and lasts until July 7.
“We obviously want to hear, not only from the public, but landowners adjacent to the area, First Nations and the communities,” Dixon said.
Though the review period is set for two weeks, Dixon said it could be extended if necessary.
“If we hear a significant amount of concern or if we have questions that haven’t been answered in that time, we can certainly extend the public consultation beyond that if we feel the need.”
There’s no timeline for when a decision on the permit could be made. White Pass has said it gave Transport Canada a verbal commitment to have the work done by the end of the year.
Rifkind said the society has concerns over how the herbicides will behave in the cold Yukon temperatures.
In an opinion article published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, three Finish scientists question the use of glyphosate in northern ecosystems.
“Glyphosate has a reputation of being nontoxic to animals and rapidly inactivated in soils. However, recent evidence has cast doubts on its safety,” the article says.
“Glyphosate may be retained and transported in soils, and there may be cascading effects on non-target organisms. These processes may be especially detrimental in northern ecosystems because they are characterized by long biologically inactive winters and short growing seasons.”
Rifkind praised Yukon Energy for choosing to do a test program before making a decision on its proposed plans to use herbicide.
The energy company is in the midst of tests to see if the chemicals can be used to control plant growth under power lines.
“I often don’t see eye-to-eye with Yukon Energy on a wide range of issues, but they’re taking the right approach,” said Rifkind.
Dixon said taking the time to make sure everything is safe is important.
“Finding that balance between the public safety of the railway and the environmental safety of the chemicals is obviously what we need to achieve,” he said.
“And we need to be able to demonstrate to Yukoners that this chemical can be used safely without damaging the water or any other parts of the environment.”
Rifkind agrees that the tracks need to be cleared but questions whether or not all other options have been exhausted before turning to chemicals.
“We do recognize that it’s a huge issue, they’ve got to get those weeds out, but this might be worse than what it’s allegedly curing.”
Representatives for White Pass have said nothing is set in stone in terms of herbicide use. They say they’re doing their due diligence to make sure this is the right choice.
Anyone wanting to comment for the review can call Jennifer Dagg at 667-5610 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is also available on the Environment Yukon website.
Contact Ashley Joannou at