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Aerial mosquito spraying draws fire from Salt Lake City west-siders, birders and environmentalists

Critics worry plan to have an Air Force C-130 help in the effort could do more harm than good.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ary Faraji, executive director, at the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District's facility on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The district's program of aerial spraying has come under fire by activists concerned about its impact on the environment and west-side communities.

Salt Lake City mosquito-control officials hoped to save some money when they sought free military assistance with their long-standing aerial-spray program over the soggy areas northwest of Utah’s largest metro area.

Now environmentalists, public health advocates, bird lovers and west-side organizers are urging them to shut down the spraying altogether, arguing that aerial applications may pose a far bigger threat than the pesky, blood-sucking insects the chemicals are intended to kill.

Streams of critics appeared Thursday at the monthly board meeting of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. They highlighted the hazards of organophosphate insecticide to human and ecological health and the menace low-flying aircraft pose to the migratory birds that rely on this area for nesting habitat.

“The chemicals used also kill off nontarget species, especially other invertebrates that are important sources for foraging birds,” Salt Lake City resident Tena Rohr told the mosquito district board. “Insects and invertebrates are elemental in maintaining a healthy wetland food web. In this time of climate change and mass extinction, we don’t dare spray neurotoxins into our air.”

Spurring the controversy was the district’s proposal to enlist the Air Force to apply pesticide in September using a huge four-engine C-130 Hercules transport plane. The Air Force maintains a unit in Ohio dedicated to these types of missions as a way to provide training opportunities for pilots to fly at low altitudes.

The project area is 43,000 acres northwest of the Salt Lake City International Airport. These undeveloped lands are vital migratory bird habitat on the Great Salt Lake’s southeast shore and are the site of the new state prison and proposed inland port.

“We welcome the public to come to the meetings. We want to learn what their concerns are and do our best to address them so at the end of the day everyone is content with the outcome,” said board chairman Neil Vickers, a University of Utah biology professor, after the meeting. “The mosquito control people don’t want to be the bogey man in this situation. They are doing their best to provide the services they believe are appropriate and mandated in their charter.”

The district is accepting public comment through March 31. Its board will decide whether to use the Air Force at its April 22 meeting. But whatever the board decides, the district is expected to continue aerial spraying using private contractors flying small twin-engine planes.

The main reason for the spraying is to minimize the spread of West Nile and other viruses transmitted via mosquitos.

The mosquito district’s executive director, entomologist Ary Faraji, has spent much of the past month trying to convince community members that aerial spraying is safe. The low concentrations of pesticides and the timing of applications, he insists, would ensure human exposure and impact to nontarget insects and birds would be minimal.

Applications occur after sunset when pollinators and other nontarget insects and birds are not active. The aircraft release the pesticides at between 100 and 300 feet in elevation to minimize drift, according to an environmental assessment.

But Faraji’s message has not swayed Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Westside Coalition leader Richard Holman, Heather Dove, president of Great Salt Lake Audubon, and other prominent activists who denounced the spray program Thursday.

“These are heavy-lift aircraft. If you think you have a handle on drift, let me tell you, those four engines, to operate at the elevations that you’re suggesting, will be at maximum power, putting out maximum air,” Holman said. “If you think you’re controlling the drift of the toxins, you are not. They will be distributed far beyond your imagination.”

Holman fears spraying would disproportionately impact the already marginalized west-side communities that abut the treatment area.

“We must not allow a cure worse than the disease,” Moench added. “The incidence of severe outcomes from West Nile virus is so low that preventing those outcomes should not be allowed to eclipse the long list of health and environmental concerns from pesticide use.”

Opponents of the inland port see increased development on Salt Lake City’s northwest side driving the need for an escalation of the chemical war on mosquitoes — something one critic said would “negatively affect all life in the area, humans included.”

Moench, who called on the Utah Inland Port Authority Board in a separate meeting to disclose any contact it has had with the district about spraying for mosquitoes in the northwest quadrant, also argued that the insects pose an “unsolvable problem” in the area.

“Spraying does not reduce mosquito populations for more than a few days, and, in fact, it may be counterproductive long term, making the problem worse by creating mosquito resistance, wiping out mosquito predators, thereby increasing the mosquito population and even increasing the cases and severity of West Nile virus,” he said. “Regardless of the port, the mosquitoes basically will remain in that area as long as the Great Salt Lake wetlands are there.”

The project area encompasses three major bird preserves, including the 3,600-acre Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary. Dove was deeply incensed that the district’s environmental assessment did not devote a single word to the area’s global importance to migratory birds.

Gillmor Manager Ella Sorensen fears a low-flying C-130 would flush the birds, prompting them to abandon nesting sites and to expend energy they will need for their long journeys. A C-130 lacks the maneuverability of the smaller aircraft typically used, so the area impacted by the pesticide flights would be much larger if conducted by the Air Force.

“Birds commonly fly between sunset and dark. A noisy, [76,000-pound] aircraft flying at 300 feet with very large propellers right into the heart of the avian fly zone in sensitive wetlands habitat is not ecologically sensitive. It is inappropriate,” Sorensen said. “There will be disturbance of shorebirds in the peak migration period.”

— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.

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