Mess­ing with midges

Our view: Bugs on Back River are an­noy­ing, but pes­ti­cides won’t solve the prob­lem

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

It isn’t ev­ery day that a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor gets cast in the role of spend­thrift by a penu­ri­ous Demo­cratic county ex­ec­u­tive, but that’s es­sen­tially what has hap­pened in the mat­ter of some an­noy­ing fly­ing in­sects in east­ern Bal­ti­more County. Small flies known as “midges” have been a nui­sance for mari­nas in the Back River area in re­cent years, and state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling has been push­ing for a govern­ment-fi­nanced pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tion.

After a bill to au­tho­rize tax dol­lars on midge erad­i­ca­tion failed in the Gen­eral Assembly last spring, Gov. Larry Ho­gan came up with an of­fer to help out the Repub­li­can law­maker — the state would kick in half the funds for a $1.3 mil­lion, one-year in­sec­ti­cide spray­ing this fall if Bal­ti­more County Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Kamenetz came up with the other half. Last week, Mr. Kamenetz’s en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion di­rec­tor sent his re­sponse: Thanks, but no thanks.

The prob­lem? By Vin­cent J. Gar­dina’s cal­cu­la­tion, the money spent on Bti, or Bacil­lus thuringien­sis is­rae­len­sis, a chem­i­cal de­rived from a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring bac­te­ria that can kill midge lar­vae but is harm­less to other an­i­mals, would hardly put a dent in the midge pop­u­la­tion. The lar­vi­cide might erad­i­cate midges in­1per­cent to 2 per­cent of the af­fected area, he wrote, but there’s sim­ply no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence it would be ef­fec­tive in re­duc­ing the midge pop­u­la­tion in the Back River.

Nat­u­rally, the re­jec­tion car­ried po­lit­i­cal over­tones, as Mr. Kamenetz is widely ru­mored to be a po­ten­tial can­di­date for statewide of­fice in 2018. And it wasn’t the first time that the two politi­cians found them­selves at log­ger­heads over spend­ing Mr. Ho­gan felt was essen­tial and Mr. Kamenetz found waste­ful. The gov­er­nor’s push for costly por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ing units in Bal­ti­more and Bal­ti­more County schools has been sim­i­larly re­sisted by the county ex­ec­u­tive, who so far has cho­sen to spend tax dol­lars on speed­ing up cen­tral air in­stal­la­tions in­stead.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties con­tinue. What would re­ally solve the midge prob­lem, as Mr. Gar­dina also pointed out, is to fur­ther up­grade the nearby city-owned Back River Waste­water Treat­ment Plant, not ap­ply the ban­dage of pes­ti­cide. It’s the ni­tro­gen and other nu­tri­ents pour­ing out of the plant that are feed­ing river phy­to­plank­ton which, in turn, pro­vide sus­te­nance for the midges. Im­prove­ments to the plant are al­ready un­der­way (in­clud­ing a $9.1 mil­lion loan ap­proved by the Board of Pub­lic Works just two weeks ago), but it’s not clear whether they will be suf­fi­cient given how some of the nu­tri­ents in the river have ac­cu­mu­lated over decades.

So why such a fuss? One can only as­sume Gov­er­nor Ho­gan wants to help Sen­a­tor Salling look like a hero to his con­stituents. Thick clouds of midges aren’t a pub­lic health threat, as they don’t carry disease or bite, but try hang­ing out near the wa­ter when a swarm de­scends. It isn’t fun. And mari­nas can’t af­ford to spray Bti on hun­dreds of acres of wa­ter on their own. By state bud­get stan­dards, the amount in­volved is midge-sized, and it sends Mr. Ho­gan’s essen­tial po­lit­i­cal mes­sage: We’re here to help lo­cal busi­nesses.

Yet like the air con­di­tion­ing is­sue, where the county has been pres­sured by the gov­er­nor to spend mil­lions on rewiring class­rooms for AC units that might be needed only a hand­ful of days, Mr. Kamenetz ap­pears to be in the right. Bti isn’t likely to be ef­fec­tive be­cause of the scale in­volved. (Vec­toBac, a pes­ti­cide con­tain­ing Bti com­monly used for mos­quito con­trol in Mary­land, is not rec­om­mended for large bod­ies of wa­ter like Back River be­cause of the di­lu­tion ef­fect.) And while the prod­uct is re­mark­ably safe (the EPA even al­lows it on or­ganic farms), killing midge lar­vae means mess­ing with the food chain, as the tiny lar­vae are food for larger in­sects which, in turn, feed fish, then larger fish and birds and mam­mals.

Even a 2014 state study that rec­om­mends Bti ap­pli­ca­tion sug­gests that it only be at­tempted near the ar­eas where peo­ple are com­plain­ing and would then re­quire “mul­ti­ple treat­ments per year, ev­ery year” and that given the large num­ber of eggs one midge can pro­duce, “any ces­sa­tion in treat­ment will re­sult in a rapid in­crease in the num­ber of midges.” That makes spray­ing a lot more costly than $1.3 mil­lion if it means a decade or more of ap­pli­ca­tions. Bet­ter to in­vest more money in fix­ing the real prob­lem — pol­lu­tion from the Back River sewage plant — than fur­ther mess with Mother Na­ture, the lo­cal ecosys­tem and the health of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. Let ma­rina and boat own­ers buy some UV in­sect “zap” traps rather than zap tax­pay­ers on this one.

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