RIDGWAY – A resident of the River Park subdivision contacted the Marshal’s Department on June 17 to complain that an employee of a contracted landscaping company, who was spraying weeds in the subdivision’s common space, had spit tobacco juice at her feet when she confronted him about his use of chemical herbicides. The herbicide was Roundup; the alleged use of another chemical, 2-4D, has not been confirmed.
The tobacco juice wasn’t the problem, though. According to the woman, when the man began spraying again, the wind caught some of the spray and blew it directly at her.
“I became sick immediately and progressively felt worse for five days, at which point I sought medical attention for re-hydration and liver detoxification,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. She said that her children, husband and pets became sick as well, and that when she spoke with her neighbors, they’d had similar experiences. Another River Park resident went on record with the marshal’s department on June 19, saying that he and his children were sick also.
Additional factors complicate the alleged poisonings. The same day that the spraying occurred, Orkin Exterminators arrived to eradicate the prairie dogs in the subdivision’s open space, of which reportedly only a few remained. Two workers proceeded to drop tablets of a commonly-used chemical known as Fumitoxin into each prairie dog hole, then backfill the holes with dirt. The company had been hired by the board of the River Park Homeowners’ Association, as had the landscaping company. However, prior notification was not made to residents of the subdivision that either procedure would be taking place.
“We arranged with Orkin to come out, and the board agreed that we’d give notice so we wouldn’t have a problem,” said Irwin Borof, president of the River Park HOA. However, by the time Orkin contacted Borof with a date for treatment, the boardmember who had volunteered to post notices was gone on vacation.
“I sent him the email, and I thought he put out the notice but he didn’t,” Borof said. Borof became aware of the miscommunication the night before treatment was supposed to take place. “So I went out there [the next morning] to let people know, to give notice personally,” he said. “There was no one around.” He left for about 15 minutes, he said, and when he returned, the only person present was the same woman who later said she was made ill, who stood on her porch protesting, according to Borof.
Borof said that from what he understands, the workers who exterminated the prairie dogs performed the procedure according to regulations, filling every hole so that the activated chemical would not escape into the air. However, the affected resident said that she found a badger that had died after digging into one of the holes, and that she personally pulled four dogs out of prairie dog holes by the collar after the dogs tried digging for the dead rodents.
It’s not the first time that Ridgway has agonized over the extermination of prairie dogs. Several years ago, a growing population of prairie dogs in the Solar Ranches’ open space resulted in a town ordinance that declared prairie dogs, their burrows and land infested with them “a nuisance,” and required their elimination “by any lawful means.”
“Since then, many have taken the position that the Town is requiring the use of poisons, etc. to eradicate rapidly growing prairie dog populations. Not so,” explained Town Manager Greg Clifton in an email to The Watch on July 2. “Dense populations of prairie dogs bring about a high risk of vector-borne bacteria (plague) and other health concerns, although you will find a lot of debate over this (it was pretty controversial when it was discussed back in 2006). The bottom line, though, is that the Town found these dense populations to be a nuisance and left it to the involved property owners to figure out how to abate the nuisance when it does occur.”
According to Andy Mueller, attorney and River Park HOA Board member, residents and the board did explore alternatives to fumigation. “The HOA board voted last year in May at our annual meeting,” Mueller said. “The members elected to the board spoke in favor of removal, and if that didn’t work to use gas for eradication.” One boardmember, who is involved in animal welfare issues, abstained from the vote and expressed her disagreement with the procedure.
Mueller said that some residents left a live trap for months and caught only one prairie dog. He also said that the board explored the idea of relocation by a commercial contractor, through vacuuming. Mueller’s research indicated that not only is the process “prohibitively expensive,” he said, but that a large percentage of the animals die in that process as well.
Wrong to Use Roundup?
Weed control presents a similar issue. Private landowners are required by the state to eradicate certain noxious and invasive weeds, including species commonly found in and around Ridgway. According to Clifton, the town issued a decree in 2003 to the effect that the town will not use toxic chemicals on town-owned land, and to this day, town workers use mechanical weed removal as well as an EPA-registered non-toxic herbicide.
“Perhaps most effectively, we try to manage vegetation by planting indigenous species that will, over time, keep the bad weeds away,” Clifton said. “We encourage our citizens to consider non-toxic approaches on their private properties, but we don’t mandate it.”
“I will say I believe that those chemicals were applied properly according to state and local laws,” Mueller said. “That doesn’t mean that they should have been applied.”
“No one on the board knew that it was happening,” Borof said. “Was he wrong to use Roundup? I don’t know.”
Borof said that the HOA board did in fact hire the landscaping company to remove the noxious weeds and maintain the common open space. The move came after weed control efforts using volunteer help from residents proved unsuccessful. The board initiated the search for a company to do the work, which resulted in numerous unreturned phone calls, Borof said. Finally the board settled on the only company who would agree to do the work. That company happened to be owned by a River Park resident, Jack Petrucelli.
“I don’t know of anybody getting sick,” Petrucelli told The Watch on July 1. Petrucelli said that he uses Roundup in his yard weekly and has never been sick from it.
Mueller said that Petrucelli’s company was contracted to remove weeds by mechanical means and by the selective use of natural herbicides, but that the latter piece of information was not effectively communicated to the company. Mueller specified that HOA dues have not and will not be used to pay for the chemical pesticides.
“I don’t think what was done was unsafe; I think the biggest issue here is communication,” Mueller said.
At this point, according to both Mueller and Borof, weed and pest control are on hold until the next annual meeting of the River Park Homeowners’ Association.
On July 2, the resident apparently most affected by the chemicals received an apology from Mueller on behalf of Borof, the board and the owner of the landscaping company. “Andy was quick to admit that the homeowners were not properly notified,” she said. “This is the first tender note of apology since the incident. I’m touched and still dealing with the after-effects of being poisoned,” she said.