The BLSG Adulticiding Program: Fear mongering, mission creep, and questionable use of taxpayer dollars

The following is a letter by Kip Andres of Salisbury. It was submitted to the Addison Independent as a letter to the editor on Sunday March 3.

I am writing this letter in response to Angelo Lynn’s editorial addressing the lawsuit pending against the Brandon Salisbury Leicester Goshen (BLSG) Insect Control District.  Insect control efforts as carried out by the BLSG are complicated, and I can’t adequately comment on the BLSG’s history, State permitting and oversight, and action thresholds in the detail they deserve here.  For anyone interested in learning more about these topics, I urge them to consult http://mwwvt.org/, which contrary to Lynn’s assertion, is a useful source of information.  They should also attend the BLSG’s meetings.  While the BLSG seeks to avoid public scrutiny, the group is funded by taxpayer dollars and is, at least in theory, operating at the behest of its member towns.  With this in mind, it is the public’s right to attend monthly board meetings and to have knowledge of its activities.  The fact that Salisbury has just appointed two extremely competent and qualified representatives to the board means that interested citizens will be more welcome at meetings than they have been in the past.

As a former member of the BLSG board, I feel obligated to respond to Mr. Lynn’s recent discussion of the organization.  While I have always found Mr. Lynn’s editorials outstanding, I was extremely disappointed by his recent commentary.  Until now, Lynn’s discussions have been fair, civil, thought provoking, and above all, well researched.  Not so with his latest offering.  In fact, his editorial on the BLSG is so problematic that one has to wonder if it was even written by Lynn!  Unfortunately, his editorial is incomplete – at best – and assumes an uncharacteristically simplistic and slanted approach to a troubling situation that has been brewing for years.  It also portrays Chris Fastie, a justifiably concerned and respected member of the local scientific community in an insulting and unfairly dismissive manner.

To provide some context, I served as one of Salisbury’s representatives to the BLSG for a two year period from 2013 to 2015.  Having grown up in Salisbury, I remember only too well summers made miserable by clouds of mosquitos.  I am neither a radical environmentalist nor someone who sees himself as an activist.  Before my association with the BLSG I had no objection to the group’s adulticiding activities (the practice of targeting already hatched mosquitoes with airborne pesticides).  The group’s multi-prong approach – parallel adulticide and larvicide programs – is complex, and I initially kept my head down, taking the minutes as the board’s secretary as I became familiar with the issues.

The more I learned, however, the more uncomfortable I became with the BLSG’s practices.  My membership on the board came at a politically fraught time, when, as I would soon discover, several board members and the coordinator of the larviciding program – who were important voices of reason – were being displaced by more traditional hardliners.  The District was also experiencing a variety of public relations challenges.  Some, including a fish die off in Fern Lake, were falsely attributed to BLSG activities by local adulticide opponents.  Others, however, including confrontations between BLSG personnel and members of the public, and repeated instances of unauthorized spraying of private property, were legitimate examples of self-inflicted damage.  The extended monthly meetings were exhausting affairs: the remaining board members ranted and raved, stubbornly defended their practices, and introduced a level of emotion into the business of insect control that I could never have imagined.

Most troubling were the board’s attitudes towards their constituents and the State of Vermont.  The BLSG exists to serve its member towns and operates under the State of Vermont’s oversight.  In theory, at least, the District also has a cooperative relationship with Vermont’s Department of Agriculture.  Most meetings, however, devolved into angry tirades over State regulation.  Board members were also consistently disdainful of members of the public who had the temerity to question BLSG practices.  The organization’s culture – which by all accounts persists today – was one of self-righteous indignation and stubborn resistance to change.  Long-serving board members railed against action thresholds, paperwork requirements, and bent over backwards to practice information control.  In an effort to keep controversial details under wraps, substantial portions of most meetings were conducted in executive session to mask the District’s problems.  I found this end run around Vermont’s Open Meeting Law particularly disturbing as the one tasked with making information about the organization’s activities publicly accessible.

Unfortunately, Mr. Lynn has clearly had a long conversation with Benjamin Lawton, the chair of the BLSG board, and has uncritically allied himself with the organization. Lynn then promptly turned around and perpetuated a number of BLSG talking points that are problematic or simply untrue.

(1) Contrary to District claims, insect control in the member towns does not need to be an all or nothing approach.  The BLSG emphasizes adulticiding for the simple facts that it is the traditional approach and a highly visible course of action that placates property owners.  (I sat through meetings where longtime board members unabashedly discussed how the adulticide program has no long term impacts on insect populations and primarily serves to pacify property owners, and those with homes on Lake Dunmore in particular.)  Larviciding, as practiced by the BLSG, involves treating seasonally flooded areas with granules of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (BTI), a bacteria that is ingested by, and kills, mosquito larvae.  In contrast to adulticiding – which employs synthetic pesticides that may ultimately be found harmful and be banned (as was DDT in 1972) – larviciding is the safest, lowest impact, and most pre-emptive approach employed.  Since larviciding kills mosquitoes before they hatch, it is the preferred approach, provided it is timed correctly.  To therefore imply that the Town of Salisbury’s questioning of the BLSG’s adulticiding program will mean that local residents will be besieged by mosquitoes is completely untrue.  The BLSG likes its adulticide, but it is a fleeting and minimally effective Band-Aid approach.  To be clear, one can be a proponent of insect control, as I am, and at the same time oppose the use of adulticides. 

(2) While Lynn parrots Lawton’s standard line about the perils of mosquito borne diseases, the BLSG was not founded to protect public health and safety.  Since its establishment in 1979, the BLSG’s express mission has instead been to address comfort related concerns involving nuisance mosquitoes.   Yes, discovery of low levels of West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in Vermont’s mosquito pools prompted a whole new conversation.  These potential threats came to the forefront in 2012 following the tragic deaths of two Rutland County residents.  As Lynn relates, Lawton’s wife had – at an earlier time – become ill with a possible mosquito borne disease, and this newly perceived public health threat played directly into Lawton’s experience and concerns.  I am in no way making light of the Lawton’s tragedy, but based upon his personal history, the emergence of broader concerns over mosquitoes as disease vectors in 2012 was the point at which the BLSG’s “mission creep” really begun.  In light of the general public’s justifiable concern, this threat has been emphasized by the BLSG, and the organization, in its mind, has become a defender of public health and safety.  However, it is critical for members of the public to understand that the BLSG, as a quasi-governmental organization, is not only operating in a self-appointed capacity in this regard, but is in fact overstepping its mandate.  In reality, the responsibility for surveillance against insect borne threats to human health lies exclusively with the State of Vermont.  Once again, Mr. Lynn fails to make this important distinction.

(3) Clearly, discovery of West Nile Virus and EEE in Vermont is unwelcome news.  However, it is inappropriate that the BLSG and Lynn are using this to play upon people’s fears to advocate for adulticiding activities.  The BLSG has an unfortunate history of such practices.  To this extent, a member of the BLSG board of directors published a piece in the Rutland Herald (Friday, January 4, 2019) chastising the paper for devoting inadequate attention to the threats of mosquito borne diseases.  In this letter, this board member sought to drum up support for the BLSG’s activities by stating that residents should be fearful due to the presence of the Zika virus in Vermont, an assertion that is patently false.  This statement prompted Alyson Eastman, Deputy Director of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to issue a rapid response on January 10, 2019 indicating that Zika does not currently exist and has in fact never been identified in the State.  In so doing, the Agency of Agriculture issued a strong rebuke, stating that the board member’s actions were “regrettable and irresponsible” and scolding this individual for spreading “misinformation”.  Remarkably, the BLSG then turned around and made reference to Zika in its annual statement which was included in the Salisbury Town Report.  This is the level of incompetence and outright manipulation of information that has plagued the BLSG, and Lynn should be ashamed for carelessly serving as the organization’s mouthpiece.         

(4) Finally, Lynn once again led readers astray with his portrayal of the Insect Control District as the innocent victim of a frivolous lawsuit filed against it by a hostile environmental fringe group.  The fact of the matter is that the BLSG, which has a history of sloppy, arrogant, and incompetent practices, submitted an incomplete pesticide application to the State of Vermont and the State erroneously approved it.  The plaintiffs in the case became aware of this fact and filed suit against the BLSG and the State of Vermont to have this situation rectified.  While the BLSG and Lynn dismiss this situation as a mere technicality that has been latched onto by a hostile party, it is more complicated than this.  In fact, the part of the application in question reportedly requires the BLSG to verify that the pesticides they use do not have harmful effects/will not negatively impact other species in the environment.  Reportedly, the BLSG submitted an application where this section was left entirely blank, presumably because this is information they do not have access to.  All of this leads to an obvious conclusion: if one is seeking to broadly apply chemicals throughout the community which he or she cannot verify are safe, he or she probably shouldn’t be using them in the first place!

In conclusion, the BLSG is an under-funded, largely volunteer organization run by generally well-meaning people who are dealing with a complex set of problems.  However, this does not explain away the fact that the BLSG is a flawed entity that has been operating in dubious fashion for many years.  While there is every indication that the BLSG’s larviciding activities are safe and effective, its adulticiding practices are archaic and questionable.  To this point, the District has survived because it has experienced inadequate oversight by the State and has gone out of its way to avoid public scrutiny (arguably in violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Laws).   Clearly, the world is a more complex place than it was in the 1970s and it is unrealistic for the BLSG to expect to operate today as it did then.  At present, the board is composed of individuals who are not only in over their heads, but who have allowed their personal emotions to cloud the organization’s mission.  It is time for change, and the lawsuit that has been filed against the BLSG will hopefully be an agent of this change.  Most disappointingly, Mr. Lynn has done the voters of Salisbury a disservice by publishing his editorial just before Election Day and leaving little to no time for correction of his one-sided and error-ridden journalism.  From this perspective, Mr. Lynn’s actions are an attack on the Salisbury Select Board’s responsible effort to provide Salisbury residents the chance to opt out of the BLSG’s self-incurred legal expenses, and amount to a disappointing misuse of the power of persuasion inherent in his editorial platform.  

And Mr. Lynn, please issue Mr. Fastie a formal apology.  You certainly owe him one.

Leave a Reply