Josef Bray-Ali was biking to work recently along the Arroyo Seco near Highland Park when he encountered an interesting sight: a county worker spraying a "neon-green" powder alongside the creek.
Bray-Ali was curious and asked what they were spraying. He was told it was an herbicide.
"They were spraying it on all the concrete and pretty much anywhere where a plant was living," Bray-Ali recalled.
This struck him as a bit odd, with Los Angeles officials in the news recently saying they wanted to revitalize the Los Angeles River and improve its awful water quality. The Arroyo Seco is a major tributary to the river.
So what were they spraying?
A mixture of three common herbicides that go by the brand names Roundup, Gallery and Endurance, according to the county. All are legal.
The latter two are the most interesting. The active ingredient in Gallery is a chemical called Isoxaben, and the main ingredient in Endurance is Prodiamine. Both are listed as possible human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency, based on limited evidence from animal studies.
Anything else interesting about Endurance?
Its label, which states:
"Do not apply directly to water, to areas where surface water is present, or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark. Drift and runoff from treated areas may be hazardous to aquatic organisms in adjacent areas."
The label also says that in high levels Endurance may be toxic to fish.
And what does the government have to say?
County agricultural commission officials said call the Public Works Department, which said call the public health department, which said call the state.
Bottom line explanation: Public works contracted the spraying, which apparently was being done to prevent weeds from crumbling the Arroyo Seco's concrete flood-control walls.
Public works spokesman Gary Boze also said that one reason his agency contracted the ag folks to spray was to "remove conditions that could create fires."
In an e-mail and phone call, Glenn Brank, a spokesman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, said that all three herbicides could be used safely, but added: "I would say that the chemicals are OK when applications do not pose a hazard to waterways."
Brank also said that it was up to the county to follow the directions on Endurance and that it was something of a judgment call on how far it should be sprayed from water.
And Brank said the herbicides do not persist for long in the environment. "If they did, then you wouldn't have to spray your yard for weeds several times a year," he wrote.
The lesson here?
The Los Angeles River drains over 800 square miles and that means a lot of nasty stuff ends up in the river, including horse and dog manure, heavy metals and automotive fluids.
In addition, highly treated sewage is released into the river, where it commingles with all the fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that area residents use on their lawns and gardens.
So let's think this through.
The federal government has ordered the city to clean up two key pollutants in the river: trash and nitrogen compounds, which are a product of sewage facilities.
Flood control, most would agree, is a good thing. And there is no direct evidence that these herbicides are causing harm to anyone or anything.
Still, it's hard not to wonder, as there is also no direct evidence the herbicides aren't causing harm.
Bray-Ali, who cycles to work each day on the Arroyo Seco bike path, said the spray left the ground covered with a greenish powder for a couple of days. "And then it rained, and it was gone," he said.
Anyone out there in Reader Land want to guess where it went?
Turning to another toxic subject, what do two parking enforcement officers have to say about the city of Los Angeles' parking meters?
Parking Enforcement Officers Angel Bellamy and Kevin Morris were in City Hall last week on behalf of the Service Employees International Union Local 347. Their message to a City Council committee: It's no fun to be physically attacked by the public.
This column, which has been contemplating the city's parking meters a lot lately, asked them whether motorists' frustration with the city's meters could be prompting some attacks?
"That's why we're in the purgatory we're in right now," Morris said.
Both said the city's meters were almost impossible to read after it rains because they fog up -- the old mechanical meters worked better (They were all replaced by the new digital ones in the late '90s.) -- and it's hard for officers to tell when a meter that reads "failed" has reset.
That echoes what many readers have said. They park at a failed meter, and then it resets to show it is expired and they get a ticket.
"When it resets there is nothing obvious that tells us that it has reset," Morris said.
There is no agreement on this issue. Amir Sedadi, an assistant general manager for the city's Department of Transportation, said workers do have a way to determine whether a meter has reset.