The state has approved plans to spray in Willapa Bay a neurotoxic pesticide that has a warning right on the bottle: “Do not apply directly to water.” What could go wrong?

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As a retired nuclear power-plant operator, Ross Barkhurst, 70, is by no means an environmentalist. In fact he spent his career clashing with them.

But even he’s shocked by what just got approved in our supposedly green Washington state: They’re going to use crop-dusting helicopters to spray into the oyster beds of Willapa Bay a neurotoxic pesticide that has a warning right on the bottle: “Do not apply directly to water.”

“I’m no greenie, but this state’s going to make one out of me yet,” says Barkhurst, who lives on Willapa Bay, near South Bend. “They have no idea what this is going to do to the ecosystem. Their program is ‘spray and hope.’”

The state disputes that, but surprisingly that’s pretty much the conclusion of two of the biggest environmental regulators in the country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both opposed the spraying program, arguing it’s experimental and could have unintended side effects on fish and other wildlife.

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It got the green light anyway.

The state Department of Ecology has approved the helicopter spraying of the agricultural pesticide imidacloprid over 2,000 acres of tideflats in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)
The state Department of Ecology has approved the helicopter spraying of the agricultural pesticide imidacloprid over 2,000 acres of tideflats in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. The chemical is to kill a burrowing shrimp that causes problems for the oyster industry. Source: state Department of Ecology (Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

The backstory here is there’s a tiny burrowing shrimp that can loosen the intertidal soil so much it turns it into a black mayonnaise-like goo. Oysters sink and suffocate. So the oyster industry for years killed these native shrimp using a pesticide called carbaryl.

But the use of that one got restricted. In its place, oyster growers have proposed spraying imidacloprid, a neurotoxin used in everything from flea poison to termite spray to farm insecticides.

It’s one of the most common pesticides in the world. But it was designed to be used on land. The label of a Bayer-made version of the pesticide, Merit, makes this explicit:

“This product is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark.”

Not surprisingly, the idea of spraying this directly into marine waters for the first time did not go over well with environmentalists or even other environmental regulators.

“I understand the concern that there’s an experimental basis to this,” said Rich Doenges, the water-quality manager for the state Department of Ecology who signed off on the permit.

“But we don’t do this lightly. We are very confident we have a series of safeguards in this permit that strongly protect the environment.”

Among them, he said, is ongoing monitoring of pesticide levels in the water and sediments and a pledge to “shut the program down if something unexpected happens.”

Doenges added that the new pesticide is considered less damaging than the old one. He said the growers, who raise 25 percent of the oysters in the U.S. just in these two bays, are looking at severe damage from the shrimp if they don’t act.

“They’re at a loss for what else to do,” he said.

While other agencies acknowledged the complicated plight of the oyster growers, who have also been struggling with ocean-acidification issues, they were blunt in condemning this spraying plan.

“Imidacloprid is a persistent broad spectrum pesticide that will kill nearly all benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms on the acreage directly treated,” wrote the National Marine Fisheries Service. “The NMFS believes impacts to benthic prey species will be affected beyond the area to be treated, including where the spray has drifted, or carried off-site by tidal currents.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added that because the pesticide was designed for use on land, there’s little information on how it might affect anything marine from zooplankton to the green sturgeon, which feeds in the bay and is on the Endangered Species List.

This pesticide is also believed to be a major cause of bee-colony collapse, and as a result has been banned or partially banned in some European countries. The state argued this wasn’t relevant because there aren’t many bees at Willapa Bay, other than hives brought in about five miles away to pollinate the commercial cranberry bogs.

Trina Bayard, the director of bird conservation at Audubon Washington, said she got the sense the state would back the oyster growers’ plan no matter what, because it’s such a beloved industry.

She wrote in about how the pesticide might affect ducks in what is a major migratory flyway. The state replied that “the potential for direct exposure of the pesticide to birds would be limited since application techniques by helicopter tend to flush birds from the target area.”

“It kind of leaves you speechless,” she said. “Their stated plan is they’re going to keep the birds safe from the pesticide by flushing them first with helicopters.”

Doenges, of Ecology, said spraying is likely to begin May 17. People have until May 16 to appeal the permit to the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

“We realize there are a lot of concerns, but we are confident this is going to work,” he said.

Barkhurst, the nuclear engineer, said it’s hubris from a state that boasts constantly about its environmental sensitivity.

“We have a substance here which is not approved for spraying in water anywhere in North America, except now in just two places — Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor,” he said. “I’m no greenie, like I said. But how green is that?”