Moth-eaten state

The spraying for gypsy moths proceeds, damaging government en route.

IF ALL GOES as expected, the aerial spraying for gypsy moths in Seattle last week will have no measurable ill effects on public health. Its ill effects on media and public confidence in government are unfortunately already all too clear.

In the three months since the state Department of Agriculture outlined its rationale for spraying, resistance to the program has expanded from a small band of protesters in the affected neighborhoods to a wide spectrum of public officials, scientists, and citizens concerned not just about immediate human health issues but the wider environmental impacts of spraying as a control technique as well.

As a general rule, people who take the trouble to educate themselves about the theory and practice of aerial spraying to control insect pests such as the gypsy moth are the most likely to oppose the approach on economic and environmental as well as public health grounds, while supporters are found mainly among those who remain—willfully or otherwise—oblivious of the facts.

State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles is a prime example of the former. Governor Gary Locke is a veritable poster boy for the latter.

When Locke announced May 9 that he had signed the "emergency order" necessary to allow spraying to take place, his arguments in favor of doing so were lifted almost verbatim from a list of "talking points" drawn up by Ag Department lawyers three months ago to turn aside citizens calling in with inconvenient questions about the plan.

Ignorance may not be bliss, but it is certainly politically convenient. On one side of the political equation on Locke's desk last week were a few thousand Seattle voters and half a dozen politicians, including Kohl-Welles, state Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, and City Council populists Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro. On the other side were forest-product multinationals whose tree farms represent the state's seventh-largest agricultural income source.

To do Locke justice, his determination to ignore the growing body of information that questions the efficacy and wisdom of search-and-destroy anti-pest methods may be due as much to peer politics as pressure politics. When provincial leaders in British Columbia were mulling over alternative ways of dealing with a moth outbreak on Vancouver Island, Locke went over their heads to the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture to demand vigorous measures to end the infestation through spraying. Under Canadian eyes, he could hardly do less at home, though the local "infestation" (consisting of one egg case and one male moth) was about a five-hundredth the size of Canada's. It was also smaller than those recommended for aerial spray treatment in both USDA and WSDA guidelines.

More troubling than Locke's decision itself was the absence, among its justifications, of any evidence that Locke had considered arguments and findings in support of a more nuanced approach to pest and public health problems in the future. Opponents of spraying brought up numerous questions about the chemical composition of the spray compounds; about plausible evidence that btk (the bacterium that is the active ingredient of the spray) can cause problems for humans and other mammals after all; about growing indications that as a long-term control strategy spraying doesn't work; about gentler, more effective (and far less expensive) alternatives to aerial application (such as pheromone-baited surface traps); about scientific counter-findings to USDA and WSDA's one-size-fits-all nuke-'em approach to all infestation risks great and small. In his prepared remarks Locke touched on none of this.

With gubernatorial permission in hand, Ag's spray team conducted operations with the same indifference to outside concerns that had earned it so much suspicion and anger already. Public notifications of scheduled applications called for in the department's own policies were scamped or ignored outright, as were restrictions on spraying over open water and under high-wind conditions on the brisk and breezy morning of May 9.

After over three months of questioning and confrontation, there appears to be no evidence that state officials have been moved in the slightest to reconsider their traditional ways of dealing with biological threats to agriculture. Agriculture these days is Big Business, and Big Business likes to call in Big Science to deal with any problems it faces. The problem for the public is that Big Science is as concerned with profit margins as Big Business is, and low-impact, low-cost, low-margin solutions to problems like the gypsy-moth threat are of as little interest as developing low-cost vaccines for impecunious Third-World clients. Hiring a few hundred high school students at the minimum wage to distribute buck-apiece paper moth traps throughout a threatened area is far and away the cheapest and most effective method of countering the bug. But it doesn't do jack for the corporate bottom line.

Despite this loss, the Ballard-Magnolia No Spray Zone protesters have no reason to despair. In the face of bureaucratic inertia and insensitivity they have established considerable solidarity; in response to the state's bureaucratic stonewalling they have done their own research and discovered alternative approaches. If Ag isn't listening to any arguments but its own—and based on his comments last week, neither is our governor—it certainly isn't the protesters' fault.

More Moths? Read Bugged in Ballard.

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