FITCHBURG -- Unitil Corp. has a proposal before the state's pesticide board for a pilot program to use herbicides this year over a 3.5-mile right of way in Townsend, according to Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara.
"Basically, the hope is this pilot would not only improve reliability, but also allow the types of plants that pose no threat to our system to grow unhindered in our right of ways.
It is an established practice used by other utilities in the area," he said.
If approved by the state, O'Meara said Unitil would then work with the town, including the Conservation Commission and abutters, to "make sure the plan is understood" before it goes forward.
The plan, if approved, could be implemented sometime this year, he said. O'Meara said if it is approved, there are certain legal notices Unitil will be required to publish in a newspaper 21 days before application.
Public notices would for public hearings hosted by Unitil before the hearing date. Those would be posted like any other open meeting, O'Meara said.
The public hearings would be in addition to outreach planned for abutters and the Conservation Commission.
No pubic hearings have been held yet, O'Meara said.
O'Meara said if the herbicides are used, the arborist will walk the right-of-way and apply the herbicide directly to the invasive species.
Herbicides would only be used on private, Unitil-owned rights of way, he said.
"It is spot work, no airplanes," he said.
He said the proposal allows Unitil to be more efficient.
"The advantage herbicide offers has nothing to do with manpower. Instead of chopping up everything in sight and spreading around the more dense, invasive vegetation (meaning it may grow back thicker), herbicides would kill these more invasive species while at the same time allowing native, lower-growing vegetation to flourish," O'Meara said.
Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, who has been a harsh critic of Unitil since the ice storm in 2008, said the plan is "troubling" because it doesn't seem to be a hard and fast plan.
"It's good to see them using nontoxic things but there's no plan. It's horrifying to see how many people are unaware of this. There should be an action plan."
If Unitil gets the go-ahead and likes the results, it could seek to replicate the plan in other rights of way in its other communities in future years.
Using herbicides is "an established practice used by other utilities in the area," O'Meara said.
National Grid's vegetation-management plan for the next five years relies on reducing the amount of herbicides it uses, using selective herbicides/application techniques, timing applications for maximum effect, avoiding fixed application schedules, using mechanical-control techniques where appropriate and encouraging low-growing plant communities.
If Unitil's plan is approved, it will be the first time the utility company would use herbicides as part of its vegetation management plan.
In the early part of its vegetation-management program, National Grid was using 24 pints, or 3 gallons per acre of herbicide on its right-of ways, according to its report. In the 1990s, they were using 10 pints, or one to 1.5 gallons, per acre. In the 21st century, it is using 1 pint to 1 and 1/2 quarts per acre.
Because Unitil's project has not been approved, the amount of herbicides that will be used and the concentration required has not been determined yet, O'Meara said.
The pilot program would be part of Unitil's five-year vegetation-management plan, O'Meara said.
"Alongside trimming back lines, we also are watching for what is called hazard trees, diseased or dying trees outside of the standard trim zone that may pose a threat to the lines," O'Meara said. "If we spot those, we work with the property owner to see if there is a way to have the tree removed entirely."
Vegetation management occurs in all Unitil's communities, including Townsend, Ashby, Fitchburg and Lunenburg. The company manages about 350 acres and 30 miles of cross-country transmission rights-of-way and 410 miles of distribution right-of-way, according to the plan.
"If they are going to be putting out all of these notices, one would think they would be notifying public officials first and have an action plan ironed out. It just goes to show you about their inability to plan," she said. "If it's in the planning stages, it's in the planning stages. Don't go holding public hearings until you have a plan together."
She said she hopes Unitil holds to its word and lets homeowners and abutters know what is going on so they can "make their own informed decisions."
Right of ways are corridors of land Unitil owns that run through the woods and away from roads, O'Meara said.
Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said the DPH has not reviewed the plan and would not be able to provide comment.
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