Missoula City Councilman Bob Jaffe couldn't believe it when he witnessed a Montana Rail Link (MRL) employee spraying railroad tracks with herbicide last spring. He described seeing "large clouds of poison" rise up from a large truck spraying the chemical along the Bitterroot Spur track.
"People walking their dogs two minutes after the truck went by would not know that the ground was soaked in poison," Jaffe wrote in a memo presented to Missoula's Public Safety and Health Committee in May.
Jaffe recently broached the issue again on his listserv—an online bulletin aimed at informing constituents of what's going on with city government—in advance of the committee taking up the issue this week. The mention elicited a number of suggestions from concerned readers wanting MRL to consider alternatives to herbicide, such as planting hemp or sending "well-wrangled" goats to clear the track. Jaffe suggested MRL at least post signs when it sprays so pedestrians have a heads up to steer clear of the area.
MRL Environmental Projects Manager Rick Shelley says the situation puts the company in a tough spot. Montana law requires MRL to keep weeds at bay. He says the company sprays weed killer once in the spring and, depending on location, sometimes in the summer. Posting signs would be too time consuming.
"I just don't know how you'd do it," he says.
Meanwhile, MRL Public Information Officer Lynda Frost is quick to remind city officials that the Bitterroot Spur Trail is MRL property. The company allows public access, she says, only because it was deemed the neighborly thing to do.
"In the spirit of goodwill, MRL granted a permit to the city of Missoula for the Bitterroot Trail," Frost says. "When that spirit is dampened by complaints, one must wonder if decisions such as these are wise."
The city planned to further discuss the issue during a Public Health and Safety Committee meeting Dec. 2, before the Independent went to press.