Escalating tensions along Colorado's Front Range have resulted in an outbreak of chemical warfare, forcing the government to step in and mediate. "It's neighbor against neighbor," says Angela Medbery, co-founder of the Colorado Pesticide Network and an eyewitness to the grassroots campaigns, which she describes as "mini-wars."
The fighting surrounds the application of pesticides--particularly a person's right to use those chemicals, as well as the right of that person's neighbor to be protected from them. The issue initially came to the forefront in 1989, when environmentalists lobbied the state legislature to redraft the Pesticide Applications Law. As a result, the Colorado Department of Agriculture was ordered to establish a registry of medically verified, pesticide-sensitive people. That list was then provided to commercial pesticide companies, which were required by law to give advance notice to registered individuals before applying pesticides on property that abuts their own.
But, says Medbery, "there's a real lack of awareness--and sometimes outright antagonism--about the issue." Part of the problem stems from the commercial applicators. But an equal portion of the blame rests on the people next door. "We have neighbors who aren't speaking," Medbery says. "And some people have threatened to sue each other over this."
Members of the Volz family of northwest Denver say little but bad feelings have come of their complaints.
Six-year-old Adrian Volz, who suffers from respiratory problems, is on the pesticide-sensitive registry. Getting on the registry was no easy task: Adrian's physician had to verify his condition to agriculture officials, and his parents have to pay a $25 annual fee for the privilege of listing him.
One problem arose about three months ago, George Volz says, when a lawn company failed to notify the family that it would be spraying pesticides next door. "I just happened to notice the lawn company come up as I was leaving to pick up my daughter from school," recalls George Volz. "I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was putting down organic fertilizer and that there would be chemicals mixed with it. I was pretty upset. As I was coming back, they were finishing up, and they put a yellow sign [a pesticide warning flag] on the lawn. Then I saw my neighbor pull out the sign. They didn't want anyone to know the lawn had been treated."
A complaint to the agriculture department, which regulates commercial applicators, yielded little satisfaction. "They said I should have told the applicator we were on the pesticide-sensitive network and that it never would have happened," George Volz says. The Volzes claim that complaining to their neighbor didn't help, either. "Every time I tried to approach her, she said she wasn't feeling good and that she didn't want to talk about it," Judy Volz says. "They've been extremely hostile. They won't communicate at all."
The Volzes' neighbors, however, say they've bent over backward to be accommodating. "I'm a reasonable person," says Judy Lumberg. "The last thing I want to do is create a hazard for anyone. We use organic fertilizer, and I believe the company does spot application of herbicides. But no matter what I do, it's not good enough. They [the Volzes] are a problem. Instead of going after the laws, they terrorize and harass and harangue the entire neighborhood."
Although Lumberg admits she did pull up her yellow warning notice, she says it was an attempt to avoid more problems with the folks next door. To the Volzes, she says, a chemical warning notice "is like waving a red flag in front of a bull."
In fact, it didn't take much to rekindle the Volzes' anger when, two months later, the Lumbergs' lawn company proved somewhat untidy in applying yet more fertilizer. Just how untidy is a matter of dispute. The Volzes claim that the company used a "whirlybird" sprayer to apply pesticides and ended up shooting chemicals about twelve feet into their yard; Lumberg says the company merely scattered some on the sidewalk. The Volzes again complained to the state Department of Agriculture, which--they say--resulted in a nasty phone call from the lawn company, accusing them of harassment.
"It's the plight of the urban dweller," Judy Volz says of the pesticide plague. "Right now, with Colorado's extensive growth, you've got more and more people who want the ideal lawn." But, she adds, "they don't realize the health hazards involved with these chemicals."
Dot Kivett, whose name also appears on the pesticide-sensitive registry, claims she knows exactly what pesticides can do. Sometimes, she says, she'll suffer respiratory problems. Sometimes the problem is with her heart.
State law does not require commercial applicators to notify registrants if they plan to spray properties down the street. Nor does it require that neighbors who do their own spraying notify anyone at all. So Kivett informed neighbors up and down her block in east Denver about her sensitivity to pesticides. But, she says, it hasn't shielded her from unwanted spraying.
"To me, it's a lost cause to talk to my neighbors," she says. "Some of them sneak around and apply it."
Kivett and the Volzes say they are interested in cooperating with commercial applicators. But they'd also like to see the pesticide laws strengthened.
The Department of Regulatory Agencies is scrutinizing the Pesticide Applications Law and will make recommendations to the state legislature about any possible changes--if it deems changes necessary. A review committee will take into consideration complaints and suggestions from the Volz family and Kivett, among others, says Linda Coulter, chief of the agriculture department's pesticide section.
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Kivett says she would like the law to require that chemically sensitive people be notified whenever anyone is spraying within 300 feet of their property. The Volzes want the state to require that warning flags remain on properties for a minimum of 72 hours. And Scot Kersgaard and his wife, Lois Witte, who live near Washington Park, would like the notification registry to include the names of anyone who wants advance notice of pesticide application.
The Washington Park couple's concerns were raised dramatically last month when a local tree company landed at the wrong address and mistakenly sprayed their yard. Miffed because they are organic gardeners, Kersgaard and Witte say they were most upset about the fact that the tree company sprayed pesticides directly over their children's toys and playground equipment.
"We called the Department of Agriculture," Witte says, "and they sent someone to the house to take soil samples. But when it comes right down to it, there are no safeguards. They came to the wrong house. It was just plain stupid.