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'Miracle' Herbicide for Blueberries Found in Ground Water : Maine: Velpar tripled yields when it was first used 10 years ago. But now that it's in the water, growers wonder whether they should abandon it.


FRANKLIN, Me. — The last time Bruce Carter sprayed his wild blueberry fields with the herbicide Velpar was four years ago. Now he wonders whether he ever will again.

"Velpar is going right from blueberry fields and making a beeline to water systems. It shouldn't be there," said Carter, as he looked out on blueberry barrens spotted with boulders left from the glaciers.

The herbicide, which kills weeds but spares berries, is credited with tripling crop yields on Maine's 58,000 acres of blueberry land since it was first sprayed on fields 10 years ago.

It was touted as the "miracle herbicide . . . like penicillin," said Carter.

But that was before Velpar started showing up in ground water supplies in eastern Maine's Washington and Hancock counties.

"We didn't know that it would go into the soil and come out somewhere else," said Carter. "Velpar is in places it has no business in being."

Hexazinone, the generic name for Velpar made by DuPont, has been detected in school wells in the towns of Gouldsboro and Aurora. In Franklin, Velpar was found at the site where the town plans to drill a new well for the public water supply. And the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission has detected the herbicide in more than 40 samples of water on or near the Narraguagus River.

The amounts of Velpar found in water supplies in Maine range from just traces to a high of 32.5 parts per billion--well below the Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory standard of 210 ppb.

But that standard could soon change, said Al Heier of the EPA. The EPA is "reducing it (the ppb standard) dramatically from what it is now, but they don't know where it is going to land," Heier said.

About 12,000 to 15,000 gallons of Velpar are used each year in Maine, accounting for less than 5% of all U.S. sales of the herbicide, said Janet Smith, spokeswoman for DuPont.

Besides blueberries, Velpar is used for forest management and on alfalfa, sugar cane and pineapple crops in several other states. It has been detected in ground water supplies in Florida, Hawaii and North Carolina, Smith said.

Some Velpar opponents have tried to link the herbicide with a dramatic decrease in clams and salmon Down East and the high breast cancer rate in Hancock County. But no evidence has been offered.

"Until we have evidence, the only thing we can do is to speculate. And that is no good at all," said Brian Beal, an assistant professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine in Machias, who is studying the 90% decrease in Washington County's clam population since Velpar was introduced.

Larry Lack, an organic blueberry grower in Whitneyville, collected 280 signatures for a petition to stop the use of Velpar until more studies are conducted to prove that it will not further contaminate the ground water.

"We are not saying that Velpar causes cancer, kills clams, hurts wildlife, but we are saying that we don't know and we have too many reasons to be extremely cautious about this," Lack said.

But Smith says DuPont and the EPA have conducted numerous studies which show that Velpar in ground water does not pose a health risk.

"Everything is toxic in some dose; this (Velpar) has very low toxicity," said Smith.

The state Board of Pesticides is now scrutinizing the use of Velpar in Maine. The board will decide by Oct. 23 whether to regulate or even ban the currently unrestricted herbicide on Maine's blueberry barrens.

A moratorium on Velpar use would be an economic blow to the state's $100-million blueberry industry.

For decades, Maine's blueberry crop stagnated at 20 million pounds a year. After growers used Velpar for a few years, the crop jumped to an average of 60 million pounds, with a bumper crop of 84 million in 1992.

"Before Velpar there weren't adequate tools to control the competing weed species and this (Velpar) has an effect on the yield and the quality of the produce. It has an effect on the harvesting," said Amr Ismail, president of the Maine Wild Blueberry Co., one of Maine's largest blueberry processors.

"Velpar is an extremely important tool in the economic production of wild blueberries," said Ismail.

"Without Velpar you'd see a lot of people just get out of the business. There is no question that it would be an absolute disaster to the industry," said Ed McLaughlin, director of the Maine Blueberry Commission.

Ismail added that because of the controversy over Velpar his company has "significantly reduced the amount (of Velpar) used and only when needed."

McLaughlin, Ismail and DuPont assert that it is OK to drink water contaminated with Velpar. "There is an enormous amount of information. It all says very clearly that there is no public health or environmental issue," McLaughlin said.

"If somebody is going to have a problem or health hazard from Velpar, it's the farmer that is going to be affected first. They're the ones that are handling it," he added.

But Carter doesn't think that way. Carter suspects his well is contaminated with Velpar, but that's not what bothers him. He doesn't want to harm his neighbors and contaminate their water.

"A person's right to use a pesticide or herbicide really stops when it enters the public's water supply," Lack said.

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