Why There's Dead Brush Along US 131

Aug 18, 2015

Dead brush along US 131 in August 2015
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

As you might have heard, WMUK is about to launch a program that answers listener questions. It’s called “Why’s That?” and the first episode will air the second week of September. But one question we received had a kind of time limit. A listener wanted to know whether dead plants along US-131 had been sprayed with herbicides, and if so, what the reasons were for spraying.

Donna Seibert is a chemist who lives in Kalamazoo but works in Allegan. She’s been commuting along US 131 for five years. And recently she noticed something that she hadn’t seen before – swaths of withered plants at the edge of the road.

“Eventually I started seeing some spray trucks and realizing that they were probably spraying herbicides. So the question in my mind was what herbicides are they using and why,” she says.

Seibert says she was curious about the environmental impact of the chemicals. She also wondered: how well protected were the people spraying them?

“And if this is mowing and cutting that needs to happen, and clearing of brush, can that be done without herbicides? And if mowing or cutting could happen more often, could the use of herbicides be eliminated?”

And, she wondered, what do visitors think?

“If people were thinking that they’re coming to a pristine landscape that hasn’t been touched and suddenly they drive up one of our major arteries north, on vacation, are they going to think, you know, what’s going on around here?”

But how obvious was the dead brush? My colleague Rebecca Thiele and I went for a drive to find out. Sure enough, we saw clumps of dead bushes – especially sumac – as we drove north from Kalamazoo along US-131 and then back to town.

Dead brush along southbound US 131 in Kalamazoo County.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Rebecca observes that if you didn’t know the roadside had sprayed, you would wonder what had happened. But the Michigan Department of Transportation says that yes, it did recently treat that stretch of 131 with herbicides.

“It’s our roadside brush spraying and we do it every year,” says spokesperson Nick Schirripa.

He says the agency doesn’t spray every road every year – it’s got too much to cover.

“We don’t need to get there every year because the herbicides we use give us a two, three, four, year window,” he explains.

This year Southwest MDOT is spraying parts of US 131. It’s also using herbicides along I-94 and spot-treating a few other roads.

MDOT's public notice concerning its roadside spraying program
Credit Michigan Department of Transportation

The reason is straightforward – it’s so drivers can see and so there’s less in the way if they do go off the road. It also saves emergency workers time in getting to accident victims.

Schirripa says that the herbicides are all approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. (That’s true for any herbicide sold legally in the United States.) He also says workers wear the gear the EPA requires – plus some for road safety.

“Eye and face protection, skin protection, gloves, kind of our standard if you’re working alongside a roadway is steel-toed boots, you have a hard hat,” he says.

Schirripa adds that MDOT does mow. But he adds that the cost of equipment and labor is much higher for mowing than it is for spraying.

“We’re talking about one guy in a truck with a hose. The equipment is already there, we don’t have to maintain it as much. So we still have some of that fuel cost, obviously, and you still have some of the manpower cost. But instead of having a four or five man crew with several mowers you’ve got one guy with a truck.”

He says MDOT does hear from people who find the dead plants hard on the eyes. And, he says, in the future it might have a partial remedy.

A state committee is looking into planting native species along the road that wouldn’t require as much maintenance, and would encourage pollinators like honeybees. It might also plant milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies.

“So there are – we actually have an effort afoot, it’s not just hack and whack, cut everything down and kill everything,” Schirripa adds.

Seibert’s response? “I am encouraged that they’re thinking of ways that they can reduce pesticide application. Or thinking of putting in native plants, that’s encouraging,” she says.

She adds that she's glad that MDOT keeps the road clear, though she adds that she’d rather its budget allowed for more mowing and less spraying. Seibert also says she’d like to learn more about the health and environmental profiles of the herbicides the state uses.

MDOT is required to disclose those chemicals in a public notice. They include glyphosate (better known as Roundup) as well as 2,4-D and dicamba.