A group of Gorham residents is trying to persuade Maine’s Department of Transportation to stop spraying herbicides along the section of the Mountain Division recreational trail in Gorham.

The Friends of the Rails to Trails plans to gather signatures at the polls in Gorham today in support of its effort to stop the spraying, which members say endangers the health of people and pets.

“We are saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” said Den Morton, a member of the group.

At issue are 5.7 miles of the Mountain Division Trail, a recreational pathway that runs alongside the Mountain Division railway. Although the rail line isn’t active, the state sprays herbicides along the right of way every year or so to keep the tracks clear of vegetation as it works to reopen the rail line.

Nate Moulton, director of the MDOT’s railway program, said spraying is the cheapest way to control vegetation along the 320 miles of track owned by the state, which will soon to take over another 260 miles of track in northern Maine.

Several years ago, state and rail officials looked for ways to control vegetation with steam or other methods, but they were not cost-effective, Moulton said.

He said the vegetation must be killed because it holds water and causes the track ties to rot more quickly. State forestry laws require owners of active railways to keep the track free of vegetation to prevent forest fires, Moulton said.

The MDOT contracts with RWC Inc. of Westfield, Mass., for the spraying. The Maine Board of Pesticides Control issues the spraying permit. Moulton said the formula is changed regularly to prevent the weeds from developing resistance to the chemicals.

“We use the minimum amount, which is way under (the levels set by) state law,” he said.

Moulton said the department sprays herbicides around the tracks along Sebago Lake. The Portland Water District, which uses the lake as its water source and has monitored the spraying for the past two years, has found no problems, he said.

At a meeting with the Gorham residents two weeks ago, transportation officials offered a “no spray” program. The program would confine the herbicide spraying to the track ballast – the rail bed and surrounding gravel – as long as the group mows the adjacent vegetation.

Moulton said the department has such agreements with about a half-dozen property owners, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity.

But Morton, a Vietnam War veteran and cancer survivor, said his group, which includes a physician, two nurses and business owners, isn’t willing to compromise. Morton said too much is unknown about chemicals that initially appear safe, but years later are shown to have negative health effects.

Dana Roffler of Hiram said the herbicides used on the tracks next to her property have killed trees. “Our place looks like a dead zone,” Roffler said.

The pesticides board has been following the issue, said Paul Schlein, the board’s public education specialist. He said the board will consider the concerns raised by the Friends of the Rails to Trails when RWC Inc.’s permit for spraying comes up for renewal in the spring.

Morton said signatures gathered on Election Day will be presented to transportation officials.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: bquimby@pressherald.com