From her Fairview porch, Cindy Hady looks out over a sea of lush vegetation. The rolling peaks of the Nantahala National Forest, far to the southwest, are nearly at eye level with the mountainside retreat she shares with her husband, Ted. Almost 20 years ago, she says, the couple moved here from Kansas City, Mo., for the beautiful views and rural atmosphere.
Turning back toward the end of her driveway, Hady sees a much less attractive picture. A swath of sickly, drooping leaves slices through the otherwise still-vibrant foliage of the woods, and a handful of straggly seedlings are all that remains green in the undergrowth. The plants turned brown, she says, after a contractor working for Duke Energy applied herbicide on Sept. 9 along a power transmission line that passes through her property.
Several years ago, the couple posted a small no-spraying sign they had received from Progress Energy, the company that managed electrical utilities in much of Western North Carolina before its acquisition by Duke in 2012. But the crew applying the herbicide last month likely didn’t notice the sign, the Hadys say, because it was working from a helicopter high above the property.
“I am furious. We did not have one thing to say about this. We had no choice in it, not even to protect ourselves,” Cindy Hady said over a cellphone video of the scene she recorded soon after first seeing the damage. “Shame on you, Duke Energy. Just because you wanted to save yourself money, you sprayed and have trashed our environment.”
Previously, Hady notes, Duke had maintained the power lines through aerial trimming, in which helicopter pilots cut vegetation using a 33-foot buzz saw while hovering above the ground. She says the company told her it had recently switched to aerial spraying as “a much more efficient program” for vegetation management.
“Our last experience with helicopters was this overhead cutting, and to see the movement of the branches as the blades are moving — it’s terrifying to think we’re in such a close proximity to a spraying,” Hady says.
In emails with Xpress, Duke spokesperson Jeff Brooks confirmed that a contractor for the company did conduct aerial spraying in the greater Asheville area, including the transmission line right of way adjacent to the Hadys’ home, in September. Since Duke first began using the practice in WNC in 2016, he said, helicopters under the utility’s direction have deployed herbicides across more than 500 acres.
That number may increase in the future, Brooks continued. “Aerial herbicide application is an effective alternative to sending crews to perform backpack spraying on foot in rough and mountainous terrain,” he explained. “Our first priority is the safety of our crews, and using aerial spraying techniques helps to promote increased safety for crews in rough and hard-to-access terrain while also maintaining effective vegetation management along our power lines.”
Duke has not yet determined how often power lines will need to be treated. But Brooks said the company hopes using helicopters will reduce the frequency of herbicide application compared to the current three-year cycle of backpack spraying.
Brooks said the main herbicide applied along the lines was Trycera, the active ingredient of which is triclopyr. According to a National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet, triclopyr can cause eye irritation in humans but is otherwise low in toxicity. Other active ingredients in the mix included fosamine ammonium and aminocyclopyrachlor.
“Each product addresses different species or has a different mode of action making the application as effective as possible,” Brooks said. “It should also be noted that the blend/mix is very diluted at the point of application and is predominantly water.”
Three of the products included in the mix — Trycera, Alligare Triclopyr 3 and Krenite S — were not mentioned in a list of herbicides on Duke’s webpage about vegetation management. Asked about these omissions, Brooks responded, “The list of the website is not inclusive of all products that may be used, but rather shows the commonly used products. We have begun using Trycera more recently as we evaluate various methods to maximize the effectiveness of our maintenance activities,” he said. “Most importantly, any product — including Trycera — that we use is rigorously tested and approved by the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].”
Out of the loop
Hady isn’t only concerned by the potential impacts of the herbicides on her property: She was “flabbergasted” that neither she nor her husband received notice that a Duke contractor would be spraying in the area. When the helicopter arrived, she says, she was at home with the windows open; she interpreted its repeated flybys as a firefighting operation.
“Had I known, I certainly would’ve taken whatever precautions I could have, because we’re so very close, maybe 100 feet from where this would have happened,” Hady says. “I have asthma. I would’ve closed the windows and I would’ve removed myself from the property.”
Duke’s website on transmission line vegetation management notes that the company usually notifies property owners in “developed and maintained areas,” such as yards, fields and pastures, at least three days before work begins. However, Brooks clarified that no such warning is offered for work conducted on Duke’s own property; in emails to Xpress sent Oct. 3-4, he claimed that the Hadys did not own property in the power line right of way.
“We only notify customers who are directly affected by the work (e.g., own the property where spray work is crossing),” Brooks wrote. “We cannot inform or consult with customers about work that does not impact them. Any notifications are courtesy in nature and typically are not required to perform any work in the right of way or on our assets.”
After Xpress shared information from Buncombe County property records showing that Duke did not appear to possess any property adjacent to the Hadys’ home, Brooks acknowledged on Oct. 23 that the company had “inadvertently misstated” its ownership. “Any misrepresentation was not intentional. That said, I noted previously that we do not typically notify customers for spraying activities in unmaintained areas, like the portion of this property that is within our right of way,” he added.
Regarding the Hadys’ past discussions with Progress Energy that resulted in the placement of a no-spray sign, Brooks said that previous arrangements would be reviewed individually. Those agreements would only be honored, he continued, “so long as doing so does not place crews in potential hazardous working conditions (e.g., rugged terrain or difficult to access areas.)”
In my backyard?
Once the Hadys realized the extent of the spraying, they contacted the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which sent an inspector to take measurements and soil samples. The department is investigating whether Duke’s contractor was correctly licensed, if the chemicals were applied properly and if the herbicides applied to the right of way caused vegetation damage on neighboring property. Due to the need for laboratory testing, results will likely not be available for several months.
The NCDA&CS declined to comment on the Hadys’ specific case, citing the pending investigation. But Dwight Seal, western district manager for the department’s pesticide section, says he has not previously heard of aerial spraying being used to treat transmission lines anywhere in the state. Although the practice is legal if all relevant regulations are followed, he emphasizes, “That was a first for me.”
Spraying is common for pest control on the flat croplands of Eastern North Carolina and is occasionally used in the mountains to treat infestations of the invasive gypsy moth. In the latter case, however, applicators use nontoxic pheromones to confuse male moths — “There’s so much perfume in the air they can’t locate [the females],” Seal says with a laugh — instead of chemicals that kill a broad range of species.
Meanwhile, Brooks said that Duke is meeting with the Hadys to resolve their issues. Other customers concerned about herbicide usage can request to have their property designated as a no-spray area by contacting Duke customer service at 800-452-2777 and asking for a vegetation management specialist.
Brooks noted that only “a small fraction of 1% of our total customer base” has requested to opt out of herbicide management. Duke has denied some requests because they created potential hazards for ground-based crews, he added, but no specific numbers on the issue were available.
Hady says she recognizes that Duke needs to keep its lines clear of vegetation and ensure reliable power for its customers. “But I would appreciate at least being able to participate with knowledge, with what to expect, instead of feeling like I’m reeling from reacting to the impacts,” she continues.
As she gestures at the brown leaves beneath the transmission line, Hady says, “When you see that kind of effect, it’s certainly understandable that we’re going to be concerned, that wow — something in such a short period of time could be so deadly.”
Updated at 12:10 p.m. on Oct. 23 to clarify the ownership of the property containing the transmission lines.